What Walt Knew: Meet the Spirit and Craft Behind The Little Mermaid

“He said, ‘It’s a girls’ movie and girls’ movies don’t do well.’  We’re like, ‘It’s a girls’ movie?’  We didn’t even realize while we were working on it.  I’m a guy.  I like this movie, you know.  Uh, so we were glad that he was wrong.”

Jodi Benson Ron Clements John Musker - Little Mermaid Q&A

Jodi Benson, Ron Clements, John Musker – Frank G. Wells Theater

I was enthralled, listening to John Musker tell tale of a conversation with Jeffrey Katzenberg during the making of The Little Mermaid.

By his side sat Ron Clements, his fellow co-writer and co-directer of  The Little Mermaid, one of the true Disney classics that forever changed the direction of Disney animation.

Next to Ron sat Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel.

I was in Burbank, California, at the Disney Studios Lot on behalf of Babble for a press trip in advance of the release of The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition on DVD and (for the first time) Blu-ray this October 1.

Sitting in the Frank G Wells Theater on the Disney lot in 2013, I may as well have been huddled over a desk full of concept art in 1987, brainstorming and creating with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken composing by my side.

It was wonderful.

Frank G Wells Building on the Disney Studios Lot, Burbank, California

There were moments when it was as though they’d forgotten our press group was even in the theater with them, as they caught up, swapping stories and “Did I ever tell you?” moments.

Jodi Benson exemplified the love and appreciation fans have for both Musker and Clements as she reflected with sweet emotion on how the role of Ariel affected her:

“And, boy, you know from that moment on it changed my life forever. So I’m so grateful to these two guys, I really am. So thankful for them because, you know, I mean they could have picked any person on planet earth and you know I… I don’t get to tell them often this in public but… it is just really thankful or grateful to have this life changing experience because really it’s…  it’s been a dream, a dream job.”

A dream job that almost didn’t happen for Benson because the dream jobs for Clements and Musker almost didn’t happen.

Clements and Musker’s early days at Disney Animation 

RON : And the studio actually, at that time, wasn’t sure if they were gonna keep animation going or not after Walt died ’cause a lot of the artists were in their 60s, like we are.  They were approaching retirement and, and there was a question of whether they might just kind of let animation kind of go away.  But JUNGLE BOOK turned out to be a huge hit.  It was like one of the biggest Disney movies in years.  So because of the success of THE JUNGLE BOOK they decided, “Well, maybe we should keep animation going.”

Learning under the Nine Old Men

JOHN : The guys who worked on SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO were our teachers.  They called them the Nine Old Men.

Ron Clements and John Musker - Little Mermaid Q&A

JOHN : But they were a group of veteran animators and we learned right from them where literally you do animation, they put it on their drawing board, and put a sheet of paper over it and draw over it and show you how it could be better.

RON : [OVERLAPPING] And I worked with Frank Thomas who is a legendary animator who did Captain Hook and Pinocchio and a lot of the Dwarfs in SNOW WHITE and did the spaghetti sequence in LADY AND THE TRAMP.

RON : When I started work with Frank, I was 20 years old and he was 62. Um, and, which seemed really, really old to me [AUDIENCE LAUGHS].  Although it was a great, great opportunity. I loved working with Frank but it, it’s weird now because 62 doesn’t seem nearly as old to me anymore.  He was a kid.  What, what was I thinking?

Story craftsmanship helped reignite love for Disney animation

JOHN : I had read some story notes from Walt Disney on BAMBI.  BAMBI was released in 1942 and they had an in-house screening of BAMBI before it was done.  And some of the note cards Walt got back, one of them said, “Well, I think that the kids will like it.”

John Musker - Little Mermaid Q&A in Frank G Wells Theater

JOHN : [Walt] was like, “What are they talking about?  Is that some kind of crack?  What is that?  The kid’s will like it?”  Because he really didn’t think he was making films that were just for kids. That’s the approach we took to making it.

RON : When [Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs] was done and people heard, “Walt Disney’s doing an animated feature.”  Before that time it was just shorts.  It was just seven minute shorts and a lot of people thought Disney was crazy. SNOW WHITE was called “Disney’s Folly” because a lot of people thought no one is gonna be able to sit through a cartoon that’s like 90 minutes long.

What Walt knew: “You had to get involved with the characters.”

RON : The whole idea just seemed almost incomprehensible to some people.  What they didn’t realize was that Walt was really sensitive to that and he wasn’t doing just an extended cartoon.  I mean, he, he really knew that to make it work that, that you had to really get involved with the story.  You had to get involved with the characters.

Suspension of Disbelief

During our afternoon, we broke into smaller groups to allow for more in-depth Q&A with both Musker and Clements and, separately, with Jodi Benson.

What I hoped for most was a glimpse into what it took, as writers and directors, to transport us into the world of Ariel, both when she is under the sea and when she is finally able to have those coveted legs required for jumpin’, dancin’.

Ron Clements and John Musker - Little Mermaid Q&A at Frank Wells Building, Disney Studios Lot

Ron Clements and John Musker

RON :  That the whole world sort of had to become real to the audience so that it almost was like a magic spell that was cast on the audience because some part of, something in your brain, you know it’s not real, you know it’s all made up.

RON : But another part just sort of buys into the fantasy so that when it works, when it’s over, you actually feel almost like you’ve been transported somewhere and you’ve had this kind of magical experience, which really was that kind of Disney experience.

RON : So that, that’s still the case, I think.  It’s not easy to involve an audience in the sort of make believe.  But when it works it is really sort of magical and… and special, I think.

“Kiss the Girl” captures hearts and the spell is binding…

RON : What they didn’t foresee though, was that it would have a fair amount of adult appeal along with kids appeal and even be a date movie.  I think that took everybody by surprise.

Kiss the Girl - The Little MermaidRON : So we were really happy that it broke through and… even a film that people saw, like I say, a date film that young people saw without their parents.  That was kind of a first for, for an animated film.

JOHN : The other thing when I really felt like I realized that we had made an impact that might last… the following October, after the movie had come out [KNOCKING] knock on the door, you open it, you know, “Trick or Treat!” and there’s a little girl dressed as Ariel.  I thought, “We made it into the popular culture!  We crossed over!  This is not even one of my own children!  This is a stranger!”

• • •

Experience the magic that is The Little Mermaid all over again or introduce it to your family for the first time when it is released from the vault on October 1! Pre-Order The Little Mermaid 2-Disc Combo Pack by September 30, 2013 and receive an exclusive set of 4 Lithographs (10” x 14”) while supplies last!

Thank you to Disney for providing travel and accommodations for The Little Mermaid press trip. Check back soon for our Q&A with the voice of Ariel and a behind-the-scenes visit to the Disney Animation Research Library aka The Vault!

• • •

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More of Megan on Threadbare Theory:

Why Are We So Defensive About Screen Time?

 How I Found My Goofy Voice as a Mom
Disney Hangover: How to Cure Post-Vacation Blues

Homework Helpers: 14 Steps to A+ Habits

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