How The Little Mermaid Originally Stumped Walt Disney - VRGyani News and Media


Friday, September 3, 2021

How The Little Mermaid Originally Stumped Walt Disney

“The greatest storyteller you’ve ever seen.” - composer Richard Sherman.

“He could look at any story and make it better.” - director Jack Hannah.

“[He] was just a natural storyteller and a great story editor.” - storyman Floyd Norman.

It’s among the most consistent compliments paid by collaborators, employees, friends, rivals, and enemies: Walt Disney was a master at telling stories, and he originated or adapted some of the most memorable tales of the 20th century. But for all his talent in that area, there were stories that, for one reason or another, defied Walt’s efforts. And the works of another renowned storyteller proved a challenge that Walt could never meet in his lifetime – but his successors did solve decades later.

The graveyard of many failed Disney pictures is the 1940s, the decade that saw Walt plummet from the heights of success to a long spell of disappointment, uncertainty, and aimlessness. The profits from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs let the studio begin development on myriad projects, but the underperformance of subsequent films precluded further work. Among the titles lost during these lean years were Chanticleer, Hiawatha, Roald Dahl’s The Gremlins, collaborations with Salvador Dali and Aldous Huxley, and a continuation of Fantasia.

The Life of Hans Christian Andersen was among the titles in play at that time. The studio had already dabbled in the Danish author’s work with a Silly Symphony adaptation of The Ugly Duckling, but this was to be an ambitious feature-length production, a marriage of live-action and animation years before The Song of the South. The film was intended as a semi-fictionalized biography, interspersed with animated adaptations of Andersen’s fairy tales. Among the tales slated for inclusion were The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Little Fir Tree, The Snow Queen, The Nightingale, and The Little Mermaid. Development art still exists to this day in the Disney archives; The Steadfast Tin Soldier was developed by storywoman Bianca Majolie, The Little Fir Tree by storyman Bill Peet, and The Little Mermaid by renowned Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen.

The Life of Hans Christian Andersen was also intended as the first significant co-production in the Disney studio’s history. Walt Disney was good friends with Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had his own interest in a Hans Christian Andersen picture dating back to 1936. He and Walt (and their intermediaries) discussed a production where Goldwyn would oversee the live action and Walt the animation. Screen treatments came from both camps, with none meeting full approval, but from the time the partnership was announced in 1940, work continued on.

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Walt kept an active hand in his end of the production. When the adaptation of The Little Mermaid became mired in trying to retain everything that Andersen had packed into his deceptively short tale, Walt cautioned against it. “We don’t need to do Andersen literally,” he told his staff. The sequence that had tripped them up was the storm and the rescue of the prince. Andersen’s tale had the prince come ashore near a convent, where one of the local girls is mistaken by the prince as his savior. This element of mistaken identity was a challenge to get across, and Walt advised against it. He suggested that the prince, coming to following his shipwreck, should catch a brief glimpse of the mermaid and hear a snippet of a haunting refrain she sang for him, and carry the memory of his mystery rescuer without any mix-up with a convent girl. This simplification carried on to the prince’s wedding, which in Andersen’s tale was a prearranged marriage that the prince opposes – until he learns that his bride is also the convent girl he believes saved his life. Walt felt that it didn’t matter who the prince was marrying; what was important is that he wasn’t marrying the mermaid.

The coproduction stayed alive until 1942, but it came apart for numerous reasons. Walt was never happy with the scripts developed by Goldwyn, or with the way they portrayed Andersen himself. Disney’s financial situation had already begun to sour. And with World War II raging, the studio’s energies were largely absorbed by government contract work. The partnership with Goldwyn was abandoned. Goldwyn himself wasn’t so keen to let the material go. He kept at the idea of an Andersen film until 1952, when he finally released Hans Christian Andersen as a musical film starring Danny Kaye. Without Disney animation, the fairy tales were done in ballet. Walt might have pursued his half of the project as a package feature in the same vein as much of his 1940s feature output, but the loss of funds and staff worked against him. Another complication was that Andersen’s fairy tales themselves ultimately proved a formidable challenge to realize even as short subjects; for just one example, the titular character of The Snow Queen spends most of the story off the page, and building a proper conflict between her and the story’s heroine was beyond Walt’s staff. The Ugly Duckling proved to be the only Disney adaptation of Andersen that Walt had a personal hand in. All the work done on the Andersen coproduction was packed away, and Walt led the studio on to other stories.

Hans Christian Andersen may have stumped Walt, but decades of succeeding Disney artists and filmmakers have taken up the challenge since. Three of the stories Walt had earmarked for his film have since made it into Disney pictures. The Steadfast Tin Soldier was the subject for the Piano Concerto No. 2 sequence of Fantasia 2000, with Bianca Majolie’s original artwork used for initial inspiration. 2013’s Frozen is “inspired byThe Snow Queen, though it bears scant resemblance to the original tale (and boasts dubious merits in its own right, but I won’t get into that today). And of course, there is 1989’s The Little Mermaid, still recognizably adapted from Andersen’s tale but very much a Disney story as a film. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, not knowing about the failed Andersen project of the 40s, were surprised that the story hadn’t been adapted by Disney before when they pitched it in 1987. Months into production, they became aware of the earlier work and consulted it for their film. Kay Nielsen’s artwork was used in the development of the storm sequence (Nielsen receives posthumous credit on the film as “visual development artist”), and transcripts of Walt’s story meetings were reviewed. Clements and Musker found that their own instincts aligned with Walt’s in key areas: the removal of the convent and the arranged marriage, the idea of a mystery girl with a song in the prince’s memory, and removing the mermaid’s dual motivation for an immortal soul.

Of course, they didn’t see eye to eye through the decades with Walt on everything. Working in a short form sequence, Walt favored expediency, and had his mermaid rush off from her deal with the sea witch without understanding that she’d paid with her own voice, running straight into the prince’s wedding. And while Andersen’s fairy tale ends in a bittersweet compromise — the little mermaid loses her prince but wins the chance to gain an immortal soul as a daughter of the air — Walt went for tragedy, and ended the story with the mermaid dissolved into sea foam. Clements and Musker didn’t take their cues from Walt on either count. But their film made it to the screen, and Walt’s didn’t.

KEEP READING: Every Disney Animated Movie Ever Made Ranked From Worst to Best

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