The Little Mermaid
This article was originally published to coincide with The Little Mermaid’s 30th anniversary in 2019.
Since the original movie’s release in 1989, The Little Mermaid has been celebrated for its unique style, its ear-worm soundtrack including tunes like Under The Sea and Part Of Your World and – of course – for its iconic characters like Ursula, Sebastian and its titular heroine, Ariel.
But even if you’ve seen the animated film a million times (or, like us, a million and one), there’s still something new to notice every time you sit down and watch.
Here are 30 things you may not have known about the much-loved film...
1. We know it as a classic now, but expectations for The Little Mermaid were actually pretty low before its release
That’s because it came at the end of a bit of a slump for Disney, although things began looking up following the release of Basil, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company a few years earlier.
There were also early concerns from Disney’s then-chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg that The Little Mermaid being *deep sigh* “a girls’ film” might hinder its success.
In fact, The Little Mermaid went on to spark what became known as the “Disney Renaissance” in the early 1990s, during which films like Aladdin, Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King were also released.
2. Disney had actually been planning an adaptation of The Little Mermaid since the 1930s
Shortly after Snow White’s release, Walt Disney himself revealed his intention to make a Treehouse Of Horror-esque anthology film split into three parts, each one based one of Hans Cristian Andersson’s classic children’s stories.
The project ended up being shelved for a variety of reasons, including an animators’ strike and the studio’s shift of emphasis to World War II propaganda films.
The Little Mermaid remains one of Disney's most popular films
3. Part Of Your World is probably the film’s signature tune, but it almost didn’t make the cut at all
Early audience feedback suggested that young viewers were rather bored by the ballad, leading Jeffrey Katzenberg to ask for it to be cut entirely. Lyricist Howard Ashman is believed to have told Disney they could remove the song “over his dead body”, threatening to quit altogether.
The song was spared after Little Mermaid directors Ron Clements and John Musker reminded Katzenberg that MGM wanted to cut Over The Rainbow from The Wizard Of Oz for the same reason.
4. At first the directors had a much different vision for the song
At first, directors Clements and Musker wanted songwriting duo Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to give Ariel a ballad she could sing early in the film to a statue of Prince Eric.
However, Ashman was insistent that the song instead be about Ariel’s dreams to leave the sea behind and become a human, likening it to an “I Want” song from classical musical theatre.
5. Ariel’s hopeful reprise was also originally much more depressing
After saving Eric’s life and becoming immediately smitten with him, Ariel sings one last chorus of Part Of Your World, declaring: “I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I know something’s starting right now… watch and you’ll see, someday I’ll be part of your world.”
It was originally intended to be a little darker in tone, though, with a downbeat Ariel singing “I’ll never be part of your world”, but it was changed at the request of the directors, who felt it went against Ariel’s determined and optimistic nature to be so despondent.
6. During Part Of Your World, Ariel asks “what’s a fire?”, while looking at an actual painting
The painting in question, art fans, Georges de la Tour’s Magdalene With The Smoking Flame, painted in the 1600s.
Ariel with the aforementioned painting during Part Of Your World
7. Alyssa Milano was among the inspirations for Ariel’s appearance
The then-teenage star was appearing in the US sitcom Who’s The Boss? at the time, and later hosted a TV special based around the making of The Little Mermaid.
The inspiration for Ariel’s hair, interestingly, was US astronaut Sally Ride, after the animators saw footage of how her hair moved when she was in space.
8. There’s a reason Ariel has red hair too
In fact, there was a bit of a dispute between studio bosses – who wanted Ariel to be blonde – and the animators, who felt the red hair looked better contrasted with her green tail, not to mention it was generally easier to animate.
Eventually, it was decided she should retain the red hair we all know and love her for now, as a way of differentiating her from Daryl Hannah’s mermaid character in Splash, which had been a hit for the studio a few years earlier.
9. Bea Arthur turned down the role of Ursula, because she was too busy with The Golden Girls, but there were plenty of other A-listers approached
After Bea Arthur said no, the part briefly went to Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who departed the project due to clashes with the music team. After that, Roseanne Barr and Jennifer Saunders both auditioned for the role (the latter landed her role in Shrek 2 almost 15 years later after Steven Spielberg somehow got his hands on her audition tape).
Meanwhile, a pre-fame Jim Carrey tried out for the role of Prince Eric, while Patrick Stewart had to turn down playing King Triton due to scheduling conflicts with Star Trek.
Jim Carrey was in his 20s when he auditioned for The Little Mermaid
10. Eventually, the role of Prince Eric would go to Christopher Daniel Barnes, who was only 17 when he recorded his vocals
The voice actor is now probably best known now for his work in the Spider-Man franchise.
11. Jodi Benson remains the only actor to have voiced Disney’s animated Ariel
She played the character in the two subsequent films, as well as when Ariel has made cameos in TV shows, video games and at Disney theme parks.
In 2011, she was named a Disney Legend, joining the ranks of Angela Lansbury, Robin Williams and Julie Andrews.
12. When recording Part Of Your World, Jodi had a good idea to help her get into character
She requested that the lights be turned down in the recording booth, so she could really get into the mindset of a girl who’d spent her entire life underwater.
The "daughters of Triton"
13. Ariel’s sisters are only seen very briefly, but pay close attention to their names
Ariel’s six sisters have fairly unique names, a lot of which have interesting back stories. Obviously Aquata is a reference to the sea itself, while Alana is believed to have been named in honour of songwriter Alan Menken. Atina, meanwhile, is thought to reference a musical Menken wrote almost a decade before The Little Mermaid, titled Atina, Evil Queen Of The Galaxy.
It’s also been claimed that Andrina was named after one of the director’s aerobics instructors.
This leaves Arista and Adella, whose names we suppose were just picked because they fit with the rest.
A popular fan theory also suggests Ariel and her six sisters represent the seven seas.
14. Look out during the Daughters Of Triton scene, and you just might see a few familiar faces
Yep, Goofy, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were all sneaked into the crowd shot. There’s also a cartoon image of Kermit The Frog if you look hard enough.
— TrivWorks (@TrivWorks) February 13, 2019
Kermit the Frog makes a cameo appearance in 'The Little Mermaid.' pic.twitter.com/bYFBCnDOV6
— OMGFacts (@OMGFacts) July 28, 2017
15. And characters from The Little Mermaid would later make subtle appearances in other Disney films, too
Most notably, Sebastian appeared for a split-second in Aladdin, nipping the Genie’s fingers as he pulls things out of his book of “royal recipes”.
There are also references to Flounder in Moana, while King Triton is depicted as a parade float in The Princess And The Frog.
Sebastian makes a brief appearance in Aladdin
16. Every single bubble in the film is completely unique, and drawn by hand
Disney estimated that around a million bubbles appear in The Little Mermaid. At the time, the company had limited resources, so to help them cope with this, the bubbles were done by Chinese animation studio. Pacific Rim Productions.
Next time you’re watching, pay attention to those bubbles, because people worked very hard on them!
17. Disney paid homage to the famous Little Mermaid statue in one scene
After Ursula is defeated at the end of the film, animators included a shot of Ariel sitting on a rock, in the same pose as the statue found in Copenhagen, Denmark, where The Little Mermaid author Hans Cristian Andersson resided for much of his life.
This shot was included as an apparent reference to the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen
18. Much is made of the fact that Ursula was inspired by the legendary drag artist Divine, but she was also heavily inspired by Joan Collins’ character in Dynasty
Lyricist Howard Ashman was the first to compare the villain to Alexis Carrington, with the film’s director admitting he was “picturing Joan Collins” when he wrote Ursula’s dialogue. Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard was also an inspiration for the character.
19. The animators leaned into the Divine inspiration a little more than Disney were comfortable with
In a nod to Pink Flamingos, Ursula was initially going to sport a mohawk, but they felt that was too “over-the-top” for a family film.
Divine, pictured in 1983
20. Animating the villain’s tentacles proved to be one of the film’s biggest challenges
That’s why it was decided animators would only give her six of them in the end.
21. There had been a backstory planned that would reveal Ursula is King Triton’s sister
This idea was revisited in the short-lived theatre production of The Little Mermaid, which debuted on Broadway in 2007, and stayed open just under two years.
Ursula and Triton are also revealed to be siblings in the 2023 live-action remake.
22. Ursula originally had another song titled Silence Is Golden which was ultimately cut
In an earlier version of the film, her song Poor Unfortunate Souls also explained her history with King Triton, and how she came to be banished, though this was also eventually removed.
Ursula and Ariel during the Poor Unfortunate Souls sequence
23. Ariel’s dress when she has dinner is actually an homage to the other Disney princesses that came before her
The puffy sleeves reference Snow White, the light pink is in reference to a dress worn by Cinderella’s mother, while the pointed sleeves are a tribute to Sleeping Beauty. After The Little Mermaid’s success, Disney would introduce a range of other unique princesses to the franchise including Jasmine from Aladdin, Pocahontas and, more recently, Elsa and Anna from Frozen.
Ariel reunites with her dinglehopper while having dinner with Prince Eric
24. The character of Sebastian was originally planned to be completely different
Far from the Sebastian we know and love, King Triton’s aide was initially supposed to be a stuffy British crab named Clarence. It was Howard Ashman who suggested giving the character a Caribbean accent, which was reflected in the musical stylings of songs like Under The Sea and Kiss The Girl.
25. And for the record – Sebastian isn’t Jamaican
Voice actor Samuel E Wright has confirmed that the accent he put on while recording the character’s lines was actually Trinidadian. So there you go.
Sebastian as seen in the film's most famous sequence, Under The Sea
26. Samuel E Wright would go on to release not one but two reggae albums in character as Sebastian
Both were released under Walt Disney Records, and included covers of hits like Twist And Shout, Three Little Birds and What A Wonderful World, as well as original tracks.
27. Grimsby was the final role Ben Wright completed before his death
Ben previously voiced Roger in 101 Dalmatians and a wolf in The Jungle Book.
He died in July 1989, four months before The Little Mermaid was released, at the age of 74.
Grimsby in The Little Mermaid
28. The Little Mermaid didn’t just reignite Disney on the commercial front, it also ended the company’s Oscars drought
It became the first Disney film since 1971 to win an Academy Award, actually taking home two Oscars, one for Best Original Song (for Under The Sea) and the other for Best Score. The last Disney film to win an Academy Award had been Bedknobs In Broomsticks, which picked up Best Visual Effects 18 years prior.
29. The film would go on to spawn two sequels, a TV show and a Broadway musical before its 2023 remake
The Little Mermaid II was released in 2000, with a prequel titled Ariel’s Beginning coming eight years after that. You could also find Ariel and co. in the Disney show House Of Mouse, as well as the Kingdom Hearts computer games.
30. And finally... the rude stuff
The Little Mermaid made headlines when it was first released on VHS, with some parents suggesting that one of the turrets in King Triton’s palace looked a little… phallic. The cover was redesigned on subsequent releases.
To make matters worse, there was further controversy when some people suggested it looked like the clergyman marrying Prince Eric and Vanessa was rather too excited about the whole thing. Disney later insisted that the crease in his cassock was actually his bent knee. Again, though, the offending knee was edited out in future re-releases.