How 'The Little Mermaid' changed the original's songs — without being 'sacrilegious'

by 24USATVMay 26, 2023, 8 p.m. 13

Alan Menken recalls working on “The Little Mermaid” as “a constant miracle.” He and lyricist Howard Ashman were still flying high from the screen adaptation of their eccentric stage show “Little Shop of Horrors,” and they were re-teaming to write music for a new film.

“What are these two off-Broadway songwriters doing at Disney? We were in Glendale — not even on the main lot — in these little warehouses that had been converted for work on animation, looking at the storyboards and giving details to the animators about what we think the structure of the story should be. There was a hunger for what it was — a return to Disney animation, and to movie musicals — and we were given a great deal of leeway to really create.”

Released in 1989, “The Little Mermaid” is largely credited for kicking off the Disney renaissance, a streak of acclaimed animated musicals that included “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and numerous others. The movie was a box-office hit and won two Academy Awards for its musical components: original score (also by Menken) and original song (“Under the Sea,” over fellow nominee “Kiss the Girl”).

“Impudent, grandiose, a multilevel crowd-pleaser,” wrote Michael Wilmington . “[It] almost returns the Disney animated features to their glory traditions of the ‘30s and ‘40s.”

That meant making a live-action version of the beloved classic — , the undersea princess who trades her voice for a pair of legs and the chance at love on land — required great care, especially when it came to presenting the legendary music.

“People love these songs so much,” said producer John DeLuca. “We didn’t go so far as to be sacrilegious against them and do crazy things. We know that sometimes, you can overdo it when you try to beef it up. We’re trying to honor that, and then let it breathe in a live-action context.”

With the help of a renowned dance company, an 86-person orchestra and a well-traveled percussionist, the new movie manages to elevate the cherished compositions into musical numbers that are aurally sumptuous and visually spectacular, whether set underwater or above it. Here’s how they pulled it off.


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