Although based on the classic tragic tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the story also carries major similarities to classic 19th-century Czech tragic opera Rusalka, the biggest difference being the very bleak ending of the opera.
Originally, Sebastian was to have an English accent. It was lyricist/producer Howard Ashman who suggested he be Jamaican. This opened the door to calypso-style numbers like "Under the Sea", which won the Academy Award.
The character of Ursula was based on drag performer and John Waters regular Divine. Her personality and some of her actions were also largely inspired by a previous Disney villain, Madame Medusa from Disney's The Rescuers (1977).
It's possible that Prince Eric could be related to Prince Phillip and Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959). In the dining room in Eric's castle on Ariel's first evening on land, there is a painting hanging on the wall. The couple bear a striking resemblance to Aurora and Phillip.
Ben Wright's final film, released four months after he died of brain cancer. When he got the part of Grimsby, Prince Eric's manservant, the erstwhile Disney folks had no idea that he had been the voices of Roger in 101 Dalmatians (1961) and Rama in The Jungle Book (1967). He had to tell them.
"Part of Your World" was nearly cut; Jeffrey Katzenberg felt that it was "boring", as well as being too far over the heads of the children for whom it was intended. At a test screening children were restless during the song which did not have finished animation - in particular one child that sat in front of Katzenberg and spilled his popcorn and was more interested in picking it up than watching the sequence. John Musker, Ron Clements and Howard Ashman all pleaded their case and begged Katzenberg to let the song stay to no avail. Ultimately the one who managed to convince him to give it a second chance was the animator of the sequence Glen Keane. Another screening was set up. This time with an adult audience and was a greater success (even reportedly moving some members to tears) and so the song was left in the film. Katzenberg later said that he was happy that no one listened to him because he couldn't imagine the film without the song.
The dress Ariel wears during her dinner with Eric is actually a combination of different dresses worn by every Disney princess prior to her. The puffy sleeves with the diamond designs are similar to the sleeves on Snow White's iconic dress. The light pink color comes from Cinderella's mother's dress (the one the stepsisters rip apart). The full skirt and draping are from Cinderella's famous ball gown. Finally, the off-the-shoulder neckline and long, pointed sleeves were inspired by Princess Aurora's royal ball gown.
Deleted scenes: An extended "Fathoms Below" sequence in which it is revealed that Ursula is Triton's sister; alternate version of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" explaining why Ursula was banished by Triton; a scene just before the concert in which Sebastian finds out Ariel is missing; extended scene of Sebastian lost in Eric's castle; Sebastian giving additional advice to Ariel at bedtime; and the fight with Ursula to the ending with no dialogue.
Before recording "Poor Unfortunate Souls", Pat Carroll asked Howard Ashman to sing the song one more time to get it right. He happily obliged. According to Carroll, he "put on the cloak" and she admits to stealing his body language and two or three ad-libs from him ("Pathetic!", "Idn't it?", "You can't get something for nothing.", and "No more talking, singing, zip-pah.")
The Little Mermaid (1989) had been a Disney property since 1941. Walt Disney planned to include the much darker Hans Christian Andersen version of the tale in a planned anthology film of the fantasy author's works. After a bitter strike by the animators that same year and the increasing focus on wartime propaganda shorts, the initial version of The Little Mermaid (1989) was shelved in 1943.
Ariel's rendition of "Part of Your World" set a precedent for subsequent Disney animated musicals where the protagonist would vocalize his or her desires early in the film. The song was referred to by Howard Ashman as the "I Want" song. See also "Belle" in Beauty and the Beast (1991), "One Jump Ahead" in Aladdin (1992), "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" in The Lion King (1994), "Just Around the Riverbend" in Pocahontas (1995), "Out There" in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), "Go The Distance" in Hercules (1997), "Reflection" in Mulan (1998), and "For the First Time in Forever" in Frozen (2013).
Ariel is purposely made to stand out from her sisters. Firstly, she's the only redhead and the only one who wears her hair down. Secondly, she's the only mermaid whose seashell top isn't the same color as her tail. Finally, although all of Triton's daughters have names that begin with the letter 'A', Ariel's is the only one whose name doesn't also end with that letter.
Some versions of the videotape cover had the likeness of a penis, inadvertently drawn on the cover. Promotional materials and posters for the theatrical release also contained the likeness. It's the highest tower in the middle of the castle in the background. The artist that drew the cover has stated in interviews that it was not intentional, but the result of having to hurry on a project where the castle's towers were rather phallic to begin with. Contrary to popular belief, the cover was never recalled, though Bashas' Grocery Stores in Arizona pulled the tapes off their shelves after a customer complained (they returned to the shelves within 24 hours). Disney did alter the suggestive spire on the subsequent LaserDisc release, and on video copies outside of North America.
There was a widespread rumor in the early to mid-'90s that the priest in the wedding scene has an erection. He doesn't (in fact, the shot is of the priest's knee moving underneath his tunic) but this didn't deter enraged moralists from strenuous protest (even to the extent of filing at least one lawsuit against Disney). In the 2006 Platinum Edition DVD release, the scene has been altered so that the priest is standing on a small platform box and his knee is no longer visible through his robes.
While writing "Part of Your World", Alan Menken and Howard Ashman discovered that the song shared contextual and rhythmic similarities between "Somewhere That's Green"; a song from their earlier musical, Little Shop of Horrors (1986). Hence, leading the duo to humorously nickname "Part of Your World" as "Somewhere That's Dry".
HIDDEN MICKEY: In the scroll that Ursula gets Ariel to sign. It is in the middle of the words when it pans over the scroll from top to bottom. Also, in the scene where the animals are trying to break up the wedding, right as the seals are jumping onto the deck of the boat from the ocean, there is a woman with black hair in a red gown with her back to the camera. The shape of her hair clearly outlines a Mickey head until she turns sideways.
When Ursula first shows Ariel the contract, it quickly scrolls through the body of the text. This is the actual text shown on the scroll: "I hereby grant unto Ursula, the witch of the sea... , one voice, in exchange for byon once high, Dinu*gihn thon Mueo serr on Puur-qurr I rehd moisn petn r m uenre urpti m srerp monk guaki ,Ch rich noy ri imm ro mund for all eternity. signed," All other instances clearly say: "I hereby grand unto Ursula, the witch of the sea... , one voice, for all eternity. signed,"
More money and resources were poured into The Little Mermaid (1989) than any other Disney animated film in decades. Aside from its main animation facility in Glendale, California, Disney also opened up a feature animation facility outside Orlando, Florida.
Many fans debate if Ursula is a squid or an octopus based on the number of her tentacles. She has only six tentacles as it was less expensive to draw; however it has been suggested that her arms count as the other two.
The directors insisted that every one of the millions of bubbles should be hand-drawn, not xeroxed. The sheer manpower for such an effort required Disney to farm out most of the bubble-drawing to Pacific Rim Productions, a China-based firm with production facilities in Beijing. The student uprising in Beijing, China, threatened to delay production. Roughly one-third of the finished cel artwork used by the Chinese artists as underlays for drawing the bubbles were in a vault only a few blocks away from the demonstration at Tiananmen Square and the violence that followed.
When The Little Mermaid (1989) earned four Golden Globe nominations in 1990, it not only became the first full-length animated feature film to be nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, but it also became the first animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Golden Globe Award, of any genre, in general. Even though it did not win, Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) would later on to become the first animated feature film to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), two years later.
This film was the most effects-animation-heavy Disney animated feature since Fantasia (1940). Even with much of the rain effects being lifted from Pinocchio (1940), the two-minute storm sequence alone still took 10 special effects animators over a year to finish. Effects animation supervisor Mark Dindal estimated that over a million bubbles were drawn for this film, in addition to the use of other processes such as airbrushing, back lighting, superimposition, and some flat-shaded computer animation.
A deleted draft detailing an alternate version of the ending had Ariel and Flounder trying to rush to the wedding barge only for Glut (the shark from earlier in the film who got stuck in an anchor ring) to ambush them, causing Flounder to gain a second wind, deliver an already exhausted Ariel to the ship, and bait Glut into chasing him with the barrel still lassoed onto his back (it's actually a gunpowder barrel), causing Glut to bite the barrel and get caught in an explosion.
When the film entered active production, the staff chanced upon the original story and visual development done at the studio back in the 1930s. Many of the changes made by the staff back then to Hans Christian Andersen's original story were coincidentally the same as the ones that the Disney writers were making in the 1980s.
On January 14, 2013, a 3D re-release of the movie was canceled after poor box office performances from several other Disney 3D re-releases: Beauty and the Beast (1991) - ($47.6 million), Finding Nemo (2003) - ($41 million), and Monsters, Inc. (2001) - ($30 million), that failed to be as successful as the 3D re-release of The Lion King (1994) - ($94.2 million). Disney had already started working on the film's 3D conversion since November 2012, so the film was ultimately released on a Diamond Edition Blu-ray 3D combo pack, instead of being rescheduled for another theatrical release date. The end credits of this release include credits for the 3D conversion team. which have thus been sped up slightly to match the music.
According to Entertainment Weekly, co-director Ron Clements brought the film's concept to Disney in 1985, but it was vetoed because it was considered too similar to a Splash (1984) sequel that was in development at Disney. In 1985, Clements, while finishing work on The Great Mouse Detective (1986), was browsing through a bookstore and chanced upon a copy of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, and found "The Little Mermaid" most fascinating, cinematic, and intriguing of all. He subsequently presented a two-page story treatment of both the film and Treasure Planet (2002) to Disney CEO Michael Eisner and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg at a 'gong show' idea suggestion meeting where everyone at Walt Disney Feature Animation is supposed to come up with at least five new ideas for animated features; an idea Katzenberg came up with when he was working at Paramount Pictures. Both of them passed on the idea; Katzenberg changed his mind the next day and gave it the green light along with Oliver & Company (1988), but not Treasure Planet (2002) due to the technology, at the time, not being sophisticated and advanced enough to capture the filmmakers' vision for the film. Early in production, Katzenberg warned Clements and John Musker that their film would be perceived as a "girl's film" and that it would make less money at the box office than Oliver & Company. As the film neared completion, Katzenberg was forced to backtrack and admit that he thought that the studio had a major hit in the making.
Disney artists had considered an animated film of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" as part of the "Silly Symphonies" series, in the late 1930s, and illustrator Kay Nielsen prepared a number of striking story sketches in pastels and watercolors. The project was dropped in favor of Andersen's Ugly Duckling (1939). For this film, the artists received inspiration from the Nielsen story sketches that were brought out of the Archives for them to study, and they gave Kay Nielsen a "visual development" credit on the film. Another first for recent years: Live actors and actresses were filmed for reference material for the animators. Sherri Stoner acted out Ariel's key scenes. Not all of Disney's animators approved the use of live-action reference; Glen Keane, the co-supervising animator of Ariel said in an interview with the Orange County Register that one artist quit the project rather than work with live-action reference.
An attempt to use Disney's famed multi-plane camera for the first time in years for quality "depth" shots failed because the machine, always a monster to use because of its sheer size, was in dilapidated condition. The multi-plane shots were farmed out to another studio.
It's worth noting by fans that Grimsby looks like an older version of Roger Radcliffe from 101 Dalmatians (1961), who was also voiced by Ben Wright. It can be told by the similar looking nose and that he puffs on a pipe in a similar fashion.
In Greek mythology, Triton is the son of Poseidon. Poseidon is the brother of Zeus. Zeus had a son named Heracles, who is the main hero of Hercules (1997). This makes Disney heroes Ariel and Hercules second cousins once removed.
Ursula sings "Poor Unfortunate Souls"; in a subsequent Disney film, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007), one of the characters, Tia Dalma, says these words in dialogue. Also, the Flotsam and Jetsam in that film's Shipwreck City may be an in-joke to Ursula's minions, too.
The first Disney Animated Feature to be released on home video just after its original theatrical release. Other films had previously seen a video release, but those films had since been reissued in theaters prior.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The most prominent ingredient shown in Ursula's transforming potion is a bubble containing a butterfly. Later it is revealed during the wedding between her and Eric that the name of the human woman that Ursula transforms herself into is "Vanessa", the name for that genus of butterfly.
Several elements from the original Hans Christian Andersen story were kept in the movie, including: Ariel being the youngest of many sisters, the secret white marble statue, the polypi along the entrance to Ursula's cavern, and Ariel asking what she'll have left without her voice and the sea-witch's response. However, in the original story, Ariel doesn't turn back into a mermaid at the end. When the sun rises on the last day she turns to foam and dies. Later editions included her becoming a daughter of the air and rising to heaven.
CASTLE THUNDER: Heard a few times during the storm that wrecks Eric's ship in the beginning. It's also briefly heard for a second during the middle of the second storm when Ursula becomes gigantic and powerful, and is the last Disney movie to use the sound.
Although he was initially hired just to co-write the songs alongside composing partner Alan Menken, Howard Ashman became a co-producer and co-writer on the film, introducing much of its elements of romanticism and camp. At least three key scenes in their entirety have been credited to him: The scene where Sebastian takes pity on Ariel and decides to help her rather than report her, a scene with him 'tutoring' her on the art of flirting, and the dialogue between him and King Triton at the end where the king decides to set her free to become the human she's always dreamed of.
Although not confirmed, it is believed that the wedding dress Ariel wears towards the end was based off of Princess Diana's wedding dress from the royal wedding of 1981 to Prince Charles, which occurred eight years earlier.
Ariel is the first Disney Princess to show her behind in her film. You see a quick glance of it when she rises to the surface after becoming a human (the film wouldn't have been Rated G if it was shown any longer).
The film's premiere screening in Copenhagen, Denmark, home of Hans Christian Andersen, was met with some negative response due to the deviations made to the original story's ending (the little mermaid sacrificing her life to save her true love). However, the film was defended by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, who told the filmmakers: "[Andersen] didn't know how to end his stories, anyway."
The wedding scene at the close of the film marked one of the first use of CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) in a Disney feature. CAPS is a digital ink-and-paint and animation production system that colors the animators' drawings digitally, as opposed to the traditional animation method of tracing ink and paint onto cels. The rest of this film uses hand-painted cels. All subsequent Disney features have used CAPS instead of ink-and-paint. An earlier scene where Ariel runs down a set of stairs, also uses the CAPS system for its moving background. This film was intended to be the first Disney animated feature using all digital processes but at the time CAPS wasn't ready. Disney's next animated feature The Rescuers Down Under (1990) was going to be the first 100% digitally processed film.
Instead of "Part of Your World", Ariel was to sing a song entitled "One Dance" where she was wishing she had the chance to dance with Prince Eric and eventually foreshadowing giving up her fins for legs to be with him, but the producers felt this song wasn't strong enough, so they went with "Part of Your World" instead.