Ron Clements & Mark Henn Interview: The Little Mermaid 30th Anniversary

Things were looking a bit bleak for Walt Disney’s famed animation studios. For a while, the films were not performing as well as they used too. It wasn’t until 1988 with the recording-setting release of Oliver and Company that they started to find their footing. It was around that time that the directing duo of Ron Clements and John Musker were in production of the famed animated film that would save the studio - The Little Mermaid.

For the home release of The Little Mermaid 30th anniversary edition, we got the interview Ron Clements and legendary animator and artist, Mark Henn (who was the supervising animator of Ariel). We look back at how things were at the studio before The Little Mermaid’s release and we even find out what Walt Disney himself originally planned to do with a Little Mermaid adaptation.

Screen Rant: Gentlemen, I just wanna say it’s a pleasure to be talking to you guys today. Ron, well actually both of you obviously in this ...let’s go back to 1985. You’re either finishing up or you were still in production on The Great Mouse Detective?

Ron Clements: Great Mouse Detective. There was a little bit of overlap. John Musker and I were starting Mermaid while we were finishing up Great Mouse Detective, and I pitched the idea like about a year before we started it, at a Gong Show and that’s kind of how it got going. But then John and myself, we were kinda focused on Great Mouse, and then started getting back into Mermaid.

Screen Rant: What do you think was the public's feelings on Disney films at that time period?

Mark Henn: A lot of people thought they didn’t make them any more. I had several people would say, “Oh do they still do animation? They still make animated movies?” So I think there was almost an apathy of…”Oh, I didn’t even know they’re still in the business.”

So it was not our brightest moment at that time in the history. I always told people, we never stopped making movies, but that was the prescription. That’s how bad things have gotten.

Ron Clements: They came out every three or four years. So it wasn’t that regular. And I think they were kind of stigmatized a little bit as films just for kids. If you didn’t have a kid to take there would be really no reason to sort of go. Which was never I think the attitude of the people at Disney, the young people at Disney. 'Course we were all there because we had been inspired by the great Disney films. Certainly Snow White was like, and that was before my time, but Snow White was like Star Wars when it came out it was like the biggest film of the year it was kind of a phenomenon. But over the years I think attitude has changed and the feeling was maybe these are kind of safe films for a family audience. But, it was frustrating I think for people our age 'cause we thought of them for films for everybody.

Screen Rant: Is that the kind of reason when you got inspiration for Little Mermaid that you kind of wanted to bring something classic back that hasn’t been done in a while. At that point it has been 30 years since there was like a classic fairy tale story done by Disney. Is that sort of the inspiration to...motivate it?

Ron Clements: It was kind of...I think there was always even before that a desire to make a film that would break through...just kind of break through the stigma. And Black Cauldron for a little while I think there was a little hope that might be and then things just didn’t work out for that film. But then Mermaid now seemed like because of a lot of things, because that it harken back to sort of classic Disney. But yet there were things that were kind of new. And it was certainly done by a different group of people. None of the people who worked on Mermaid for the most part were people who had done those earlier classic films, so there was some overlap but that was over now. So it was a new generation, a baby boomer generation and the sense of wanting really kind of being hungry for something that would be special and just something that you felt was as good as you can make it.

Screen Rant: Now there is stories that apparently Walt was gonna do a Little Mermaid movie at some point. Was there any kind of work made back then that you guys referred to?

Ron Clements: There was, we didn’t know about it at that time. At the time I pitched it even years later we didn’t know it. It wasn’t a feature, it was a film that was kind of like Fantasia that would have different stories and segments almost set to music  without dialogue, and one of those was the Little Mermaid. Kay Nelson who designed “Night on Bald Mountain” (from Fantasia) had done a set of beautiful drawings. One of the oldest story guys Vance Gary who let us know and we got those drawings out of the research library and pinned them up.

Mark Henn: And they used some of the imagery was used in our film.

Screen Rant: I was actually gonna ask that if anything was transferred over to …

Ron Clements: Particularly in the storm sequences there were things.

Screen Rant: Wow, that’s great. My last question, 30 years later, was there any specific animation or even  just a scene that you guys still look at and go “We did really good with that.”

Mark Henn: (laughs) Well one that comes to my mind is when Ariel loses her voice that was a real challenge, and I was very excited about that challenge, but there's a scene where she overhears that Prince Eric is gonna marry Vanessa and she reacts to it. There was no dialogue, not a lot of heavy breathing. It was all in pantomime and if I had to pick one and I’ve had other people tell me that’s one of their favorite shots. That worked out well.

Ron Clements: I remember at one of our previews...Roy Disney’s wife, Patty Disney, was just going on and one of the Little Mermaid previews, she was just so impressed by that scene of Mark’s. That’s pretty cool.

Mark Henn: I got one right!

More: Jodi Benson Interview for The Little Mermaid 30th Anniversary

Disney’s The Little Mermaid 30th Anniversary edition is now on Digital and comes to 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD on February 26.

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