How Disney’s The Little Mermaid Changed The Studio’s Approach To Fairy Tales
In a recent retrospective, ex-employees described how The Little Mermaid changed the way Disney Studios approached fairy tales.
In a recent retrospective, former Disney employees described how The little Mermaid marks a turning point in the company’s approach to fairy tales. Walt Disney originally conceived the film as part of an anthology in the 1930s, but was ultimately scrapped. The story remained unknown until 1985, when Ron Clements, the director of The Great Mouse Detective, proposed the idea of adapting Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale to the new head of Walt Disney Studios, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Katzenberg, who had assumed this role when the company reorganized in 1984, approved the development project and The little Mermaid went into production. After an arduous animation process due to the complexity of the underwater scenes, the film was finally released in 1989 to critical acclaim and became a box office success. It went on to win two Oscars out of three possible nominations and rekindled Disney’s reputation as a profitable animation studio. The years that followed have since been dubbed the “Disney Renaissance” and have seen the release of fan favorites such as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. A staple of those “Renaissance” years was that films often focused on strong female characters, upending archetypal fairy tale tropes that often dealt with princes rescuing damsels in distress.
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The focus on strong heroines in movies like The beauty and the Beast would not have been possible without the success of The little Mermaid. As reported by THR in a retrospective, Gary Trousdale and Terry Press, two of the critical minds working on The beauty and the Beast, to see The little Mermaid as the ancestor of the new approach that made Belle’s story so inspiring. Press even explains how it wouldn’t have been possible to make Belle such a strong character without the success of the previous film. See the full quote below:
GARY TROUSDALE, Disney animator (Guest rooms co-director): The little Mermaid was the classic fairy tale Disney had been making for decades, but with a new energy.
TERRY PRESS: There really isn’t The beauty and the Beast without Little Mermaid. The idea of a heroine with her own mind, “I’m gonna get what I want, and hang out with these cute characters, and we’re gonna sing, and bad things are gonna happen, but in the end I’m smart, so I I’ll figure that out” – they’re about one thing.
Press comments on the nature of Ariel’s character are a great indicator of how The little Mermaid paved the way for Renaissance heroines. She and Belle are not only stubborn characters who work hard to achieve their goals, but they are also wonderfully generous. For a long time, many Disney princesses were just passing characters in the plot, destined to experience difficulties from which someone (usually a prince) could save them. Ariel and Belle, on the other hand, embody the sympathetic emotionality of characters like Cinderella and Snow White, but they don’t sit in towers waiting for their hero; they go out and get what they want.
The little Mermaid‘Animation’s impact on animation in the late 20th century cannot be overstated, and its legacy is felt in the way Disney tells female-centric stories. A majority of the most acclaimed animated films that have been released in recent years, such as Moana, Encanta, and Frozen, had female protagonists, all of whom were celebrated as complex and interesting characters. The days of damsels in distress waiting for the handsome prince are long gone, and we can hope he never returns.
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