The Little Mermaid (1989)

Ariel’s signature tune, “Part of Your World,” is one of Howard Ashman’s best-known works.

Dear Howard Ashman,

Thank you for my childhood.

Growing up during the Disney Renaissance, you, Howard, were more Walt Disney to me than Walt himself ever was. You weren’t just one of the many working on the great films of this time, you breathed life into these timeless masterpieces. Watching The Little Mermaid, it’s not hard to see your fingerprints all over it, your vision infused throughout. You had such an unparalleled sense of music and storytelling. Your numerous Academy Awards (some even awarded posthumously) with longtime collaborator and composer Alan Menken are a tribute to the way you reinvented the Disney animated musical. (Between you and me, Alan hasn’t quite been able to hit that level since you left this world.)

The soul of Mermaid is, of course, Ariel. And she really has your heart. As a girl, I found qualities in Ariel to which I could aspire. She is naturally curious, genuinely accepting and fiercely loyal. She is not afraid to stand up for herself — a rare characteristic in the Disney canon up to this point. While, today, I want Ariel to aspire to more than catching Prince Eric’s eye, I still love her just the same. She wanted more from life, and would stop at nothing until she got it — even if that meant trading her beautiful voice for the legs that would get her to her end goal. And that’s something to admire. I love her spunk, I wanted her red hair, I even tried to use a dingle hopper once.

In learning more about your life and love of art, Howard, perhaps nothing gets to the heart of you more than Ariel’s emotional power ballad, “Part of Your World.” You stood up to Jeffrey Katzenberg when he was ready to cut the number. You worked tirelessly with Jodi Benson until her performance was more than perfect. Indeed, you even wowed The New York Times, whose reviewer proclaimed it “the film’s first musical bull’s-eye,” adding that “any Broadway musical would be lucky to include a single number this good. The Little Mermaid has half a dozen of them.”

While it may sound like I’m gushing like a fangirl, it’s not just me with the flattering accolades for what you left behind at Disney. You are a big reason the company enjoyed such lasting success from its films of this era, and your colleagues will back me up on this. Here is a taste of their praise for you:

  • “I give Howard all the credit and I’m very plain about that. I’m very clear, you know, every nuance, everything you hear, everything you like about Ariel is because of one man.” — Jodi Benson, voice of Ariel
  • “As a writer, Ashman was evocative and accessible but also edgy and irreverent. It was his idea to transform the witch Ursula into a larger than life character, and to turn Sebastian the Crab, Ariel’s guardian, into a clever wise-cracking Trinidadian…” — Michael Eisner, Disney chief executive
  • “He was an amazing influence on everybody. I don’t want to compare him to Walt, but on the other hand, he had that kind of influence on everybody.” — Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew

Mermaid was certainly a collaborative success; the result of a studio in sync once again, from every wave and bubble to every seagull cry. But when I think of the vision behind it all, the magic once lost and now returned, I think of Howard.

So, to my friend Howard, “who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul,” I will be forever grateful.

Howard was diagnosed with HIV-AIDS in 1988. Disney moved production of Beauty and the Beast to New York City state, so Howard could stay involved. And he was, intimately, until his death on March 14, 1991. Howard was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2001. 

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10 thoughts on “The Little Mermaid (1989)

  1. Jordan Briskin says:

    If I may say, I consider “Part of Your World” to be the one song that truly gave the Disney Renaissance its voice; more than that, it ranks among the greatest anthems (songs that encapsulate the central theme of the story) in animation history, the others being “Colors of the Wind” (“Pocahontas” [Disney, 1995]), “I Will Always Return” (“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron [DreamWorks, 2002]), “Circle of Life” (“The Lion King” [Disney, 1994]), “When You Believe” (“The Prince of Egypt” [DreamWorks, 1998]), “Someday” (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” [Disney, 1996]) and “Reflection” (“Mulan” [Disney, 1998]).

  2. […] top by hand. The music was well done, matching the Disney formula to a tee but missed the magic of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast: Nobody is still humming any tune from this movie, despite it having a […]

  3. […] adaptation — you will recall that Ariel doesn’t die and turn into seafoam at the end of The Little Mermaid like she does in the Hans Christian Anderson tale — and they never apologize for it. The company […]

  4. […] in 1994 (it could have been 1995, my memory of the time is a little hazy). The Disney magic from The Little Mermaid, which I clearly remember my parents taking to my sister and I to see in theatres, to Beauty and […]

  5. […] in The Little Mermaid, he allowed the music to communicate important internal dialogue and move the plot forward quickly […]

  6. […] long, talent was stretched and ambitions (and expectations) were high. After the massive success of The Little Mermaid one could hardly blame the company for wanting to spit out hit after […]

  7. Thanks for writing this lovely tribute. Just for the sake of accuracy, Disney moved pre-production on Beauty to Peekskill, NY for Howard (who was living in Beacon, NY at that time). Also, in fairness, though Howard went up against Jeffrey many times, he also respected him. And, as a family, we will be forever grateful to Disney, and especially to Jeffrey Katzenberg, for their support during Howard’s illness.

    • Danielle Webb says:

      Thank you for taking the time to visit our site and leave your comments, Sarah. We certainly appreciate the added insight from someone like yourself. We touched a bit on how much people at Disney respected Jeffrey Katzenberg even though he butted heads with them in our previous post about Oliver & Company and will likely do so again with our upcoming posts on Beauty and the Beast and the Lion King. He, and many others at Disney during this time, definitely deserve their share of the praise for the studio’s successes.

      It goes without saying, but Howard’s work at Disney meant a lot to me as a child and still resonates deeply today. I truly thank you for all you do to keep his memory alive.

      Danielle

  8. Ryan William Isenor says:

    Anyone who has seen “Waking Sleeping Beauty” will appreciate the emotional depth you gave to this review, Danielle. I thought the address to Howard was particularly appropriate to honor his memory and the legacy he left the studio. The last line of your review brought a tear to my eye. Well said.

    Ryan

    • Danielle Webb says:

      Thanks, Ryan! I’m pretty proud of this one and thought you’d like it as well! I definitely shed a few tears myself while writing.

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