Go Under the Sea With These Secrets About the Original The Little Mermaid

Halle Bailey's live-action The Little Mermaid has officially splashed into theaters. So, we're revealing fascinating facts about the original, 1989 animated classic

By Tierney Bricker May 27, 2023 10:00 AMTags
Watch: Halle Bailey Getting LOTS of Celebrity Love for The Little Mermaid

Can you believe it's been nearly 35 years since Disney took us all under the sea

Yes, the original The Little Mermaid was released on Nov. 13, 1989, making the animated take on the 1837 story the studio's first film based on a fairy tale to come out since 1959's Sleeping Beauty

Directed by Ron Clement and John Musker and music by the legendary Hans Christian Andersen and Howard Ashman, the tale of Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) revitalized Disney, earning over $230 million, winning two Oscars and kicking off a long string of animated hits for the studio. 

And now, we're getting more whosits and whatsits galore with the live-action film (out now), starring Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed DiggsJonah Hauer-KingJacob TremblayAwkwafina and more.

"I truly feel that being Ariel helped me identify who I am on my own," Halle previously told E! News, noting she sobbed after seeing the first cut. "I've never seen myself on a big screen like this. So no. 1, it's weird to watch yourself. But then you're also like, 'Who is this girl, who's a mermaid, who's doing a great job—like, I did this?'"

The Cast of Disney's Live-Action The Little Mermaid

But before the film officially becomes part of our world, we're taking a look back at the original film and uncovering everything you didn't know about it.

For instance, did you know one of the movie's most iconic songs almost was cut from the film? And that a very famous comedic actor auditioned for the part of Prince Eric? Keep reading for more...

1. According to co-director Ron Clements, his initial pitch to adapt The Little Mermaid was rejected because Disney had plans to put out a sequel to Splash, their hit mermaid rom-com starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, and they felt it may be too similar. 

2. Initially, Ariel was set to be blonde, with the character's supervising animator Mark Penn recalling an executive telling the animation team," All mermaids, all blonde." 

3. Model Christie Brinkley was the original model for the Disney princess' physical look before the team made the decision to give Ariel red hair. "Artistically everything fit," Penn explained. "It just made sense [with] all the colors under the sea—blues and teals. It was like, 'Why not make her a red head?'"

4. Having worked with lyricist Howard Ashman on his short-lived Broadway musical Smile, Jodi Benson (Ariel) was invited, along with the rest of the women from the show after its run was cut short. None of the audition tapes were labeled, so the executives were basing this crucial decision solely on the voice...taking a long time to make their choice. "I went on with my life. It wasn't 'til...a full year later, that I got a call that my tape had been selected," Benson told Behind the Voice Actors. "So it's quite miraculous, really."

5. After the success of The Little Mermaid, Disney was interested in having Benson voice Belle in 1991's Beauty and the Beast, but then decided they needed a slightly more mature voice. "They said, 'No, no, no. I think we want to make her a little more classical, a little more womanly,'" Paige O'Hara, who beat out 500 other actresses to land the role of Belle, told Genesis Moments. "My voice is a little lower than Jodi's."

6. It's all in the details: Millions of bubbles were drawn for the film...each one by hand so no two were exactly the same. And the storm scene, which runs for just two minutes in the film, took a team of 10 people an entire year to animate.

7. Per Makin' Toons, producers' first choice for Ursula was Dynasty star Joan Collins, with early sketches of the character based on her. After Pat Carroll snagged the role, the character was inspired by the iconic drag queen Divine.

8. Ultimately cut from the film, the original script revealed Ursula to be King Triton's banished sister and Ariel's aunt, according to DVD commentary. 

9. Some other almost-casting choices? "Young Jim Carrey auditioned for Prince Eric and Roseanne Barr auditioned for Carlotta, the chambermaid," co-director Clements revealed. Meanwhile, Patrick Stewart was originally set to voice King Triton before scheduling conflicts prevented him from joining the film. 

10. Sebastian, one of the biggest breakout characters from the film, wasn't written to be from the Caribbean, but rather he was British. But when producer Ashman read the script, he suggested making the change because he wanted to infuse a "Jamaican and calypso influenced score that would give it a pop feeling." And that's how "Under the Sea," the song that would go on to win Best Original Song at the 1989 Oscars, was born.

11. When Samuel Wright auditioned for his career-making role as a Caribbean crab, he actually had no idea what he was auditioning for.  "I was told they were looking for a Sammy Davis Jr.-type of character, a lot of energy, I was going to go in and do Sammy…that's all I knew," he recalled to Madame Noire. "I had no idea it was for Little Mermaid. I flipped out because I always wanted to work for Disney ever since I was a little kid. I used to paint Disney characters on window pane glass and mail it to Disney."

12. While they initially didn't want Wright to ad-lib lines, after he had finished his voice-work he was called back in for one last session where they asked him to spend three hours adding whatever he'd like, which included the line, "Teenagers, you think they know everything. You gave them an inch, they swim all over you."

11. Christopher Daniel Barnes was just 16 when he voiced Prince Eric, reprising the role for the 2006 video game Kingdom Hearts II, but was replaced by Rob Paulson for 2000's film follow-up The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea. Fun fact: he also played Greg Brady in the live-action movies, The Branch Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel. Groovy!

12. Cameo alert: In the opening scene, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and Kermit the Frog are in the crowd of sea-people watching as King Triton arrives and Cinderella's Grand Duke and King can be seen in the background of the wedding scene. 

13. "Part of Your World," arguably one of Disney's most iconic songs, was almost cut from the film after executives were concerned children would be bored or restless during the ballad, which happened during a test screening when the animation had yet to be completed. 

"Howard Ashman basically said, 'You're not cutting the song, because I'll walk,'" Benson said of the fight to keep the song in. "He really caused quite a stir with that defiance."

14. In 2018, Lindsay Lohan revealed on Instagram that her "dream role" would be playing Ariel opposite Meryl Streep as Ursula, telling Variety she was "going to harass" her agent about the live-action remake Disney had announced. 

15. Alas, Lohan was not cast as Ariel in Rob Marshall's remake. Grown-ish star Halle Bailey landed the role (sparking debate on the Internet because, well, it's the Internet), with Harry Styles turning down the role of Prince Eric. 

"I think it's obviously going to be an amazing film," the singer explained to Capital FM. "But they shoot for so long and I wanna tour next year, maybe. I haven't announced that yet, but yeah, it just didn't quite line up." 

This story was first published on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 at 3 a.m. PT.