THE LITTLE MERMAID, which launched Disney’s animation rebirth in 1989, made its digital debut last night (Sept. 7, 2006) at Hollywood’s legendary El Capitan Theatre. The special limited engagement runs through Sept. 24, celebrating the Oct. 3 release of the special edition DVD from Walt Disney Home Ent.
As part of the opening night festivities, there was an informative panel discussion hosted by veteran Disney animation producer Don Hahn (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT). Directors John Musker and Ron Clements participated along with composer Alan Menken, supervising animator Glen Keane, Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel) and Sherri Stoner (the live-action reference model for Ariel). A surprise treat occurred when Benson sang “Part of Your World” accompanied by Menken at the piano.
They discussed how in 1985, at the start of the Michael Eisner/Jeffrey Katzenberg era, the animators were kicked off the lot and set up shop in a warehouse on Flower Street in Glendale and the tremendous influence of Menken’s late partner Howard Ashman, who served as lyricist, writer, producer and overall impresario. It was Ashman who transformed Sebastian from a stuffy Brit to a Caribbean crab, utilizing calypso and reggae musical influences to make the movie more accessible. Meanwhile, Keane, who had specialized in villainous animals and was all set to animate Ursula the sea witch, changed his mind when he heard Menken perform “Part of Your World.” He was transfixed by the notion of Ariel as a character striving to achieve the impossible.
Prior to the event, Musker, Clements and Keane reminisced about THE LITTLE MERMAID and discussed the new regime under John Lasseter with AWN. As previously reported, the directors are developing a traditional musical fairy tale, THE FROG PRINCESS, as the studio’s re-entry into 2D, while Keane proceeds in his directorial debut with his own traditional fairy tale, RAPUNZEL, in 3D.
Were they aware that, with THE LITTLE MERMAID, they were embarking on a new Renaissance at Disney? “We were the younger generation chomping at the bit [to get our chance],” Clements said. “We thought that THE BLACK CAULDRON was supposed to be the next SNOW WHITE but it didn’t turn out that way. But we sensed that this had great potential. This was the first fairy tale since SLEEPING BEAUTY. These were realistic human characters, and there were effects and moving hair. It was intimidating and scary. Katzenberg was very demanding and there were budget constraints. Fortunately, AMERICAN TALE had good production values and that helped, and ROGER RABBIT helped take some of the curse off — there was that perception that animation was for kids. Howard had a fresh sensibility and understood musical theater.”
Musker added that LITTLE MERMAID contained a strong story crew, including the likes of Brenda Chapman, Joe Ranft and Roger Allers, among many others. “Jeffrey liked the script, which was a bonus. This was the only one [out of the big four that also included BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN and THE LION KING] that didn’t explode.”
As for THE FROG PRINCESS, they admitted that there are some interesting parallels as they embark on a new 2D revival. “Music and animation are innately appealing,” Musker suggested. “There’s a stylization to musicals that moves it away from live action. John [Lasseter] loves 2D. He wants to aim high, be timeless, raise the bar [with every animated feature]. John embraces Disney. He’s not negative, like the last regime. He believes that quality will win out and that problems can be fixed.”
Musker, who attended CalArts with Lasseter, Brad Bird and Tim Burton, enjoys the new collegial atmosphere at Disney Feature Animation, carried over from Pixar, in which directors from both studios share notes on projects. “It harkens back to the atmosphere at CalArts.”
Keane agreed: “I’ve known John since high school and it’s hard to think of him as my boss. We share an excitement about ideas. He’s empowered the directors. We fly up to Pixar and they have their brain trust and we have our story trust. We have different solutions but you search for the white, hot center [where the problems are]. I recently flew up to talk with Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and some of the other directors seeking advice about directing. We have experimental scenes on RAPUNZEL to prove out — story and visual at the same time.”
Keane admitted that he considered starting over in 2D with RAPUNZEL after Lasseter took over Disney Feature Animation, but was too committed to 3D to abandon it. “After two years of finding that there is something special about hand-drawn pushing CG in a direction that can happen, I realized that this is a necessary drive. I want to make the computer bend its knee, to execute what an artist envisions, to make it respond like a pencil.
There are a lot of ways of making the world inside the castle incredibly imaginative and then exciting when she gets out for the first time. There’s no photoreal hair. I want luscious hair, and we are inventing new ways of doing that. I want to bring the warmth and intuitive feel of hand-drawn to CG.
“It’s interesting how Renaissances [in animation] start with fairy tales. There’s a lot of drawing in the movie: it’s organic. It’s that sincerity and appeal [that’s the driving force], which goes back to the Nine Old Men. It was the sincerity and appeal of Ariel that inspired me to want to draw her in LITTLE MERMAID.”