It doesn’t matter your age, gender, financial status or maturity level since it seems that everyone has seen The Little Mermaid at least once in their lifetime. This Disney classic was released back in 1989, and became the source of inspiration for many families and industries. Suddenly, kids were being named Ariel and Sebastian all over the world, and SeaWorld was getting more business than ever before. Children’s obsessions with the mythical mermaid creatures of the deep oceans surpassed interest in any other kind of supernatural beings, including the more realistic possibilities of aliens that had been popularized by Ridley Scott and James Cameron films. Exploratory missions were suddenly funded higher than they had been in decades to explore crevices of the ocean that had been untouched since the beginning of time.
The Little Mermaid, the story of a rebellious young seabound teenager venturing off to find love in a foreign and exciting place, clearly did a lot more for the global Zeitgeist than provide a short cartooned distraction for kids. Audiences instantly fell in love with the story, and many viewers still hold this Disney classic close to their hearts today. However, there’s more to this mermaid than meets the eye. It’s easy to overlook fun cameos and Easter eggs when enjoying such a beloved animated classic. Yet, understanding some of the historical background behind this flick can be eye-opening when taking a second look at the film. Check out our list of the 15 things you didn’t know about The Little Mermaid, and keep your eyes open for some hidden treats the next time you watch this Disney princess classic.
15. The Movie Was Almost Rejected When Splash Came Out
Fast forwarding to the 1980s, Disney producers were looking for the next big hit. Though the 80s produced several good films for the corporation, including The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Company, none of them were incredible hits like Winnie the Pooh had been in the 70s or The Jungle Book in the 60s. The decade was coming to a close and producers needed an ace in the hole. They stumbled upon the sketches for The Little Mermaid that had been made back in the 1930s and got excited at the idea, but were also a bit apprehensive. Splash, a Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah movie about a man being saved by a mermaid and falling in love with her, had just come out in 1984. Disney was a bit apprehensive at producing another movie that was so similar to this screen gem just a few years later. Although they had their doubts, the project was nervously green lit and the rest is history.
14. Mickey Mouse In Ursula’s Contract
Recently, Disney and Pixar animators have been planting cameos and surprise crossover appearances in movies just to see if any devoted fans are paying close enough attention. For example, there was a Woody doll in Monsters, Inc., and a Mike Wazowski doll inside the shop in Frozen. Some Easter eggs are easy to catch while others are a bit trickier to find, but all are very intentionally planted by animators who build their professional lives around Disney movies. However, this tradition goes back farther than you may realize. Even in the 80s, animators were paying homage to their Disney forefathers. You’ll notice in the contract that Ursula presents to Ariel, where she signs over the rights and property of her voice, the print gets very tiny. Obviously, Ariel didn’t read the fine print, but some devoted fans did. If you can manage to decipher the ultra-small writing, you might be surprised to see one odd symbol that stands out among the rest: a Mickey Mouse head! It seems that even then, animators were waiting for adoring fans to stumble upon inside jokes left by the design teams.
13. It Was Almost Made Back In The 1930s By Walt Himself
In 1937, Walt Disney achieved one of his greatest successes. Disney, both the man and the company, released the highly successful hit, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The story was based on the old children’s tale written by the Brothers Grimm, with a few minor (and major) changes made to make for a happier ending and a sweeter animated tale. The movie was such a hit that, upon its release, Walt immediately sought out the next Disney hit film. He went back to children’s tales and hunted through the pages until he found Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Little Mermaid. He put his illustrating team on drawing up mock-ups and preliminary sketches, but the project ended up being shelved indefinitely and the sketches were sent to archives. What made Walt put aside this idea, which ended up being a hit (though it took fifty more years to come to fruition) was the emergence of a new idea. The idea of Pinocchio came along, and that wooden puppet turned real-boy seemed more marketable.
12. Goofy And Mickey Are Hanging Out Waiting For King Triton’s Concert
Mickey Mouse showed up more than once in this adorable and beloved Disney film. In fact, he even brought some of his friends along for the ride. In the very beginning of the film, King Triton is seen surrounded by his subjects at his birthday celebration. For a moment, viewers can see the shirtless king float over a crowd of his subjects, with most of the characters too small to make out. Yet, if you look very carefully and freeze the frames as he passes over his constituents, you’ll see a couple of rounded mouse ears poking out in the crowd, as well as a very tall dog with a long nose. That’s right, Mickey’s pal, Goofy, is among the crowd beneath the sea. Viewers might be wondering how these cartoon characters are able to party in the underwater city, especially since they were invited to the party when seemingly no one else from above sea level knows mermaids exist. For the enjoyment of the film, it’s best not to read too much into it since sometimes a funny cameo is just a funny cameo.
11. Patrick Stewart Nearly Played King Triton
It’s difficult to imagine the smooth, commanding presence of Patrick Stewart behind the all-powerful (and somehow super hot) animated father figure in The Little Mermaid. This was back in the days when Patrick was best known for his significant Shakespearean training as well as his roles in Dune, Maybury, and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. At that point, he hadn’t had any of his roles in the X-Men films or even his leading role on Star Trek: The Next Generation yet. In fact, that’s the only reason he didn’t take the role. Producers had their hearts set on Stewart for King Triton, but he got the role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard just before Disney came in with their offer and he elected to focus his work on Star Trek. Heartbroken and disappointed, Disney continued their search until they found Kenneth Mars, who ended up voicing the role. Stewart, though, has gotten several more shots at voice-over work since and can be heard in The Pagemaster, Family Guy, and The Prince of Egypt.
10. It Was Alan Menken’s Test Run With Disney
Although Alan Menken may not be instantly recognizable to mainstream audiences, it’s inevitable that you’re familiar with his work. He’s composed most of the iconic music in children’s movies for the past two decades, from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to Tangled and Hercules. For those who aren’t familiar with children’s movies at all, Menken has also had a hand in a number of other films outside of the children’s genre. His work can be found in such hits as Sausage Party, Galavant, and Captain America. However, Alan wasn’t always so prominent and popular. Disney actually took a huge chance in bringing Menken into their employ after a few flopped musicals. It was made clear that this was his only chance to prove himself to the corporation. Fortunately, Menken did the best work he could, and ultimately gave the world some of the most memorable songs of Disney’s canon. Audiences can thank Menken for unleashing Disney classic melodies like “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
9. Originally, Flounder Defeated The Shark
When you think about the best sidekicks and apprentices in Disney films, Flounder isn’t exactly the first character to come to mind. Mulan’s best “dragon” friend Mushu might be considered, due to his dedicated commitment in helping Mulan nearly single-handedly defeat the Mongolian army. Timon and Pumbaa might also be considered since they vigorously fought alongside Simba to take back Pride Rock. Yet, Flounder is best known for being the fish that would get scared and hide while Ariel wandered off on her own adventures. Flounder’s only tangible contribution in the climax is swimming Ariel to a boat, which is something she ought to have accomplished on her own.
While he may not have been the best sidekick in the film, he could have been if the film used the original director’s cut. In the beginning of the film, Flounder and Ariel encountered a shark and Ariel was able to outwit the shark and trap him so the two could escape. Yet, the original director’s cut actually showed the shark finding them and challenging them for a rematch towards the end of the film. In this version, Flounder stepped up to the challenge and defeated him.
8. The King And Duke From Cinderella Are Guests At Eric’s Sudden Wedding
There are a wide variety of theories posted on the Internet featuring all the evidence that the Disney universe is all connected. Fanatics can spend hours researching the comprehensive world and how all these stories can be tied together, even though there are plenty of flaws and holes in these stories. However, it is true that it has been common practice for Disney to pull cameos in from other films in their roster. One example can be seen at Eric’s wedding in The Little Mermaid. During the first wedding where Ariel reclaims her voice and breaks the hypnotic power Ursula holds over him, his dog Max can be seen running past a couple of old and surprised looking men. Coincidentally, those were the Duke and the King from Disney’s Cinderella. Evidently, these universes are tied closer together than their conflicting time periods and historical contexts would have previously suggested. Then again, we encourage viewers not to overanalyze the cameo at too much length since after all, it is just a cameo.
7. Ursula Was Based Off A 1970’s Drag Singer
While not her entire character or character arc was based on reality, but Ursula’s appearance and the general tone was based on a 1970’s drag singer named Divine. Divine, lesser known by his given birth name of Harris Glenn Milstead, was most popular for his appearances in cult classics like Hairspray (the drama, not the musical seriocomedy), Pink Flamingos, and Polyester. He also recorded many global hits, including “You Think You’re a Man,” “I’m So Beautiful,” and “Walk Like a Man.” He was an icon to men like him, desperate to come out of hiding and flaunt who they truly were.
It was because of his iconic work in Hairspray that Disney chose to model him for the villain role in The Little Mermaid. His legacy inspired the role of Edna Turnblad to always be cast as a man in drag. While it was something done once as a ploy, it now is seen as outreach to the LGBTQ community.
6. The Hans Christian Andersen Story Isn’t So Jolly
Just like most fairytales turned movie, The Little Mermaid has some darker origins. The original tale of The Little Mermaid was written by Hans Christian Anderson, one of the most well-known authors of children’s stories alongside other such names as the Brothers Grimm and Aesop. In fact, several other of his allegories have been turned into Disney movies, including The Ugly Duckling and The Snow Queen, which became the hit film, Frozen. Of course, they’re very loose adaptations since sticking to the original text would have created much darker films, especially in the case of The Little Mermaid.
In the story, the young mermaid, only 10-years-old, falls in love with a prince who never realizes she exists (unlike Eric in the movie). She persuades a sea witch to turn her into a human despite the witch warning her that it’s a terrible idea (unlike Ursula in the movie), but the process is much more painful. The little mermaid has her tongue cut out, and walking on human feet is pure agony. If she can get the prince to love her, she’ll get a human soul and go to heaven but if not, she’ll die and turn into sea foam. As you can guess, this little mermaid did not get a happy ending.
5. Ariel’s Appearance Is Based On Alyssa Milano And Sally Ride
Most princesses (and animated characters in general) are based in some way on a real-life person or model. Rapunzel was very much based on her voice actress, Mandy Moore, and Anna was based on Kristen Bell. The Little Mermaid, though, was designed before production had an actress in mind. Illustrators profess they had two inspirations in drawing Ariel: Alyssa Milano and Sally Ride. Alyssa Milano was starring as a young girl on Who’s the Boss?, a hit sitcom at the time. Though it’s kind of odd and inappropriately sexual that they were basing this scantily clad princess off a teenage actress, it’s important to remember that Ariel was supposed to only be sixteen herself.
The other inspiration was Sally Ride’s hair; not for the bouncy curls, obviously, but for the way it waved and moved in zero gravity. Sally Ride, the first woman in space, had luscious hair that flowed in zero gravity like a nymph’s in water. It was the perfect inspiration for the illustrators trying to portray what a mermaid would look like with flowing hair under water.
4. It’s Now A Stage Musical
Fans of the story and film can get a whole new experience of The Little Mermaid at a live performance, with brand new songs written and composed by Alan Menken. There are characters that are new to the story, as well as the beloved characters and songs you’ve adored for decades. The staged musical, released back in 2008, was not exactly an instant success, even though it replaced Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. It met with critical reviews and left Broadway fairly quickly. However, since it has been touring the country and springing up in regional theaters, the musical has become a wild success. Fans can experience the songs you love and the story you adore in a brand new and interactive way. This is a show that encourages families to bring their kids, and fall in love with a story from an older generation. The touring cast is currently in Hollywood, but is apt to continue their global tour somewhere completely new and might be visiting a city near you before long.
3. Magdalene With The Smoking Flame – A Conscious Choice
Remember in “Part of Your World” when Ariel sings “What’s a fire and why does it… what’s the word… burn?” As she sings it, she swims up to a gorgeous painting in her trove of treasures and touches her fingers against the small flickering flame in the portrait. Though it’s not mentioned in the film and we never see the painting again after that moment, that painting is called “Magdalene With the Smoking Flame.” The French Baroque painting depicts Mary Magdalene looking longingly at a flickering candle. So if it was chosen intentionally, what does it mean?
It symbolizes the longing and desire Ariel feels. Mary Magdalene, like Ariel, was raised in a society wherein women weren’t permitted to do many things. All Mary wanted to do was be with Jesus, love Jesus, save Jesus if she could, but she was unable to do anything to help him because of the rules society placed on her. Ariel has rules to never visit the surface, never speak with humans, never leave her father’s domain, and it’s keeping her from the man she loves.
2. “Part Of Your World” Was Almost Cut From The Movie
Speaking of the most iconic song from the movie, one surprising tidbit was that it was almost cut from the film. It’s difficult to even imagine this movie without this song. It’s certainly the best song in the original score, and is the first that comes to mind when most fans think of The Little Mermaid. What on Earth could have compelled them to cut this scene from the movie?
Apparently, during the first screening of the film (which are very professional and serious events at Disney), Jeffrey Katzenberg, the then-chairman of Walt Disney Studios, observed one of the children that was in the test audience dropped his popcorn and took it to mean he was goofing off and not engrossed in the song/movie. He insisted for it to be cut, but when the entirety of the creative team fought him on the call, he relented. Eventually, he came to feel embarrassed by the call that could have killed the film.
1. It Brought Families Together
While all children’s movies arguably bring families together, The Little Mermaid definitely went above and beyond. Actually, there are a number of children’s films that depict families being pulled apart. In Brother Bear, a Native American hunter chooses to leave his natural family and tribe to support a bear cub in need. In Anastasia, the Romanov princess returns home only to leave again a few days later with a dude she’s hooking up with, and even The Little Mermaid ends with Ariel waving goodbye forever to her sea-bound family. However, the underlying theme goes deeper in The Little Mermaid. For parents, The Little Mermaid isn’t about your kids moving on to better things or marrying them off to wealthy suitors. It’s about letting them be who they want to be, whatever that may mean. King Triton almost lost his daughter because he struggled with that important parenting fact. Upon seeing the movie, a teary-eyed New Jersey State Trooper wrote to his estranged daughter apologizing and asking for a chance to repair their relationship. She accepted, and the two wrote to writer/director, Ron Clements, to thank him for the gift they’d given them.