A blonde Ariel and Jim Carrey as Prince Eric: 'The Little Mermaid' could have been a very different film
Many insights into how the beloved movie could have looked were revealed over the weekend at the D23 Expo in California – did you know Ursula was originally modelled on Joan Collins?
With five of the six highest grossing movies of 2019 so far, and both Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker still to come, Disney’s complete and utter dominance of the current movie landscape is clear for all to see.
It wasn’t always this way, though. After 1985’s The Black Cauldron flopped the studio was so close to bankruptcy that its legendary animation department, which had thrived for decades under the guidance of Walt Disney until his death in 1966, was in jeopardy. The critical and financial success of The Little Mermaid in 1989 changed all of that, paving the way for what Disney has become today.
It was no surprise then that the D23 Expo, held over the weekend in California, wanted to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Little Mermaid in style, as Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel, oversaw an in-depth celebration of the musical.
And Benson had a lot to reveal about the many ways the landmark movie could have been drastically different: it almost starred Jim Carrey and Roseanne Barr, Ursula was nearly a mermaid, and Ariel was almost blonde. Here are the highlights:
The Little Mermaid was originally rejected by Disney
After joining Benson onstage, The Little Mermaid’s co-director Ron Clements recalled how, in January 1985, Disney’s new chief executive Michael Eisner and film president Jeffrey Katzenberg originally rejected his idea for an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy-tale because it was too similar to their planned sequel for Splash.
It didn’t take long for Eisner and Katzenberg to recognise the error of their ways, though. Just three days later they called Clements, who had pitched them a much happier take on Andersen’s incredibly depressing Little Mermaid fable, which actually ends with the main character dying, and told him to develop the story.
Most of the songs were written in two days
After writing their treatment for The Little Mermaid, Clements and his writing and directing partner John Musker were told by Disney that composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who had just earned their first Oscar nomination for Little Shop Of Horrors, would be writing the music for the film.
Musker and Clements then flew out to New York from Los Angeles to collaborate with Ashman, who immediately suggested that their British crab Clarence should become Caribbean, as he wanted to bring in a “Jamaican and calypso influenced score that would give it a pop feeling”.
As well as helping to create Sebastian, the beloved singer of Under The Sea, Ashman spent the next two days with Musker and Clements identifying “the bulk” of The Little Mermaid’s songs. Musker and Clements then headed back to Los Angeles to write the script and begin the torturous audition process.
Jim Carrey as Prince Eric? Roseanne Barr as Carlotta?
While casting most of the parts was difficult, finding the voice for Ariel proved to be rather simple. Once again, Musker and Clements had Ashman to thank for pointing them in the direction of Jodi Benson. She was actually starring in Ashman’s Broadway musical Smile at the same time as they were all working on The Little Mermaid. Ashman invited Musker and Clements to a performance, which is when they first heard the singing prowess of the young actress.
Finding the likes of Prince Eric, Carlotta and Ursula was much more troublesome, though. “It is always hard to find the right voice for the character. We auditioned many, many actors,” noted Clements.
“Young Jim Carrey auditioned for Prince Eric and Roseanne Barr auditioned for Carlotta, the chambermaid.”
The Golden Girls’ Beatrice Arthur was the first choice for Ursula, but for an unknown reason she never actually “came in and never met” the filmmakers. Luckily for the film, Pat Carroll shone in her audition, as well as in The Little Mermaid itself, and the perfect meshing of her voice and the haunting animation for Ursula instantly made her one of Disney’s greatest villains of all time. There were plenty of growing pains during the development of the characters, though.
Ursula was nearly a mermaid, Ariel was almost blonde
While it is impossible now not to imagine Ariel’s as a red-head, when development first started on The Little Mermaid Katzenberg insisted that she would be blonde. Mark Penn, the co-supervising animator for Ariel, recalled the executive telling animators at the time: “All mermaids, all blonde.”
As such, model Christie Brinkley was used as inspiration for the physical look of Ariel. Clements and Penn couldn’t recall exactly why and when the decision was made to change the color of Ariel’s hair, but it immediately became apparent that it was the right way to go with the character.
“Artistically everything fit,” said Penn. “It just made sense [with] all the colors under the sea – the blues and teals. It was like, ‘Why not make her a red-head?”
The biggest alterations were reserved for Ursula, though. Ruben Aquino, the supervising animator for Ursula, revealed that not only was the aquatic foe originally intended to be skinny, with Joan Collins in Dynasty a big inspiration, but she was also supposed to be a mermaid and the sister of King Triton. But after seeing an octopus escape from a closed jar by unscrewing its lid from the inside, art director Michael Peraza suggested adding tentacles to Ursula to make her more “creepy” while still being “fun to look at.”
With everything ironed out, The Little Mermaid was finally released on November, 17, 1989, nearly four years after Clements had initially pitched it.
The film hit cinemas to rave reviews, earned over $233 million (Dh856m) at the worldwide box office and went on to to win two Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song.
Most importantly for the studio, though, it sparked a creative renaissance at Disney. Over the course of the next decade Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan all built upon what The Little Mermaid had started, meaning that the foundations for Disney buying Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel and, most recently, 20th Century Fox, and becoming the most powerful studio in Hollywood today were actually laid – under the sea.
Updated: August 27, 2019 12:11 PM