Twenty-five years ago this week, a new era of animation was born. Pretty much right after its release in 1989, The Little Mermaid became an instant classic. There’s a high chance you and your siblings grew up not only watching the movie, but singing along to the movie, and then jumping into pools and trying to throw your hair back in just the right way, in the hopes of mimicking Ariel. It’s okay, we all did it, becauseThe Little Mermaid quickly became a staple VHS, then a staple DVD, and now it’s something in heavy rotation on Netflix. But, you might not realize just how important The Little Mermaid was to all the animation movies that followed. The Little Mermaid was the birth of what many refer to as the Disney Renaissance.
Here’s a very quick and condensed Disney animation history lesson for you: Once upon a time, the giant media conglomerate was struggling in the cartoon department. Walt Disney had set up his little animation empire — and let it be noted that many thought he was crazy for trying to make full-length animated features for the general public — and was churning out film after film. Walt passed away in 1966, and his brother, Roy, took over the company. Then, Roy passed away in 1971 and it was as if the company lost its footing for a little bit. And, on top of that, other animation studios were starting to get in on the animation game, and they were turning out higher quality films which were making more of a profit. During the ’80s, Disney Animation released films like Oliver & Company, The Great Mouse Detective and their biggest commercial failure, The Black Cauldron. While none of these films were “bad,” per say, none of them were really great, either. The Great Mouse Detective is downright scary, actually, and frightened many young children hoping to see a feel-good movie (myself included).
Meanwhile, other animation studios were releasing films like An American Tail and The Land Before Time which greatly out performed any Disney release. The studio needed to do something to regain its former glory. Cue Ah-Ah-Ah, Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah!
Disney decided to re-think a film Walt had originally wanted to make in the 1930s — Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. They didn’t just want to make another animated film, they wanted to make an animated musical, even bigger and better than the ones they had done in the past. They wanted to make a show-stopping Broadway-feel musical, and turned to the musical team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for assistance. It worked. When The Little Mermaid opened it outperformed the other new animated release that weekend — All Dogs Go To Heaven. The Little Mermaid went on to become the highest grossing fully animated film to date, and won two Academy Awards that year, one for score and one for song (“Under the Sea”). The Little Mermaid is how Disney animation got its groove back.
It also marked a huge shift in not only story, but also in how animation was done for future films. Disney even went ahead and opened up a second animation facility out in Florida at Disney World to house all of the animators needed to work on the film. At the time, it was the most complicated film to animate, because of all of the bubbles (real, scientific animation fact). It was also the first film in a while for the company that had a cast of very well developed characters — and Ariel was the first princess to speak her mind! No offense to Cinderella or Aurora, but they’re not really the go-getters of their stories. Ariel knows what she wants, and she goes after it. Granted, she’s a long way from being as independent as, say, Elsa. But Ariel was the beginning of a new type of princess trend, which is probably my favorite outcome of the movie’s success.
Without the success of The Little Mermaid we probably never would have had the rest of the Disney movies that defined our childhoods. Without Ariel, we wouldn’t have Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, the next huge Disney film that was released three years later in 1991. Without Ariel, we wouldn’t have Jasmine from Aladdin, who was always my favorite princess growing up because she was headstrong and determined like no one else. These princesses never would have been possible before Ariel, and it’s because of the huge success of The Little Mermaid that so many more females like her came into our lives.
And, the biggest thing from all of these releases is that it gave Disney the foundation to completely revive their animation studio. They even built a brand new studio in Burbank, and you might have seen pictures of it with its iconic Sorcerer Mickey hat situated right out front. You know, that’s the building where Frozen was made. It’s not a stretch to say that without Ariel, we wouldn’t have Anna and Elsa — or Mulan, Pocahontas, Merida, Rapunzel, and Tiana. Ariel set the tone for the next generation of Disney movies, and in doing so set the tone for our generation’s movie touchstone and even the way we watch movies. We can’t thank her enough for doing that. Sure, Disney might have all been “started by a mouse” but our childhood dreams of adventure and exploring were started by a spunky mermaid.
So happy birthday, Little Mermaid. We’re so glad you’re part of our world.