Brian Fields asked a while back for me to share any memories of working on Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID and now seems as good a time as any. It seems hard to believe that the film was released 20 years ago (come fall) and though much has happened since then, the experience remains pretty fresh. Although I haven't watched it in many many years, I am always glad when someone remembers the movie fondly and am proud to have been associated with it. To state the obvious however, I was just one small fish in a mighty big pond.
One of the things I recall very clearly was that the picture seemed like a natural from the get-go, a classic Disney fairy tale. We were returning to the roots of SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA and SLEEPING BEAUTY after a 30 year hiatus. Needless to say, during that time, the 'old guard' had all retired or passed on and it was the first really heavy weight production to land in the laps of what was then "the younger generation." After years of grousing, we were finally going to get to work on a story of the calibre we had come to think of as "classic Disney". It was an honor, it was exciting, and it was also a daunting challenge for even the most talented in the group. Everybody had to push harder and dig deeper than ever before. We were glad to do it, too.
Prior to MERMAID, I was a junior animator on OLIVER & CO, animating under the supervision of Reuben Aquino on "Francis" the bulldog and also some scenes of the Bette Midler poodle character. During most of that production, I shared an office with fellow animator Kevin Lima, who went on to direct TARZAN (along with Chris Buck) and the recent smash hit ENCHANTED. In addition to being a talented artist and obvious director in the making, Kevin was well known for his passion for live theatre and and when the gifted New York stage titan Howard Ashman became involved, Kevin was asked to sit in on early meetings, pitching ideas and drawing character designs. As I recall, it was Kevin who came up with the genius idea of modeling "Ursula" the sea witch on 'Divine', the obese female impersonator who had been John Waters' favorite underground 'leading lady.'
I was always eager to hear anything Kevin had to say coming out of these sessions. Everyone was champing at the bit and angling to know what was going on. At one point directors John Musker and Ron Clements passed out copies of the script in progress for the crew to read. I think it was a second draft, but I remember well flying through the pages as I sat in a lounge area in one of the old Kem Weber chairs imported from the hallowed old studio to our makeshift digs in a warehouse on 1400 Flower Street. The script was one of the best I ever read, and all the characters and events were very clearly defined. It was one of the only times I have been lucky enough to work on a movie where the script was that good (and that complete) even before the boarding started.
None of the voices had been cast and none of the songs had been written yet, but there was mention of a Caribbean motif to the story. As typically happens at the early stages, a number of iconic actors were being referenced as possible "types" , even though they may not ultimately be the final voices (usually they aren't, for any number of reasons). I had heard they wanted a "Geoffrey Holder type voice" for the crab character who was to be Ariel's 'Jimminy Cricket' sidekick. Geoffrey Holder was well known at the time as a Bond villain from LIVE & LET DIE, and had been synonymous with a 7-UP soft drink ad where he pitched the virtues of the 'un-cola'. The only trouble to me was, that I could not imagine a voice like Holder's, (deep, rolling and mellow) coming out of the rough sketches I had seen of the beady-eyed, Frisbee-shaped crustacean. I kept thinking of the Holder's long face and soulful, expressive eyes... I thought to myself: "Why not just forget about a crab's real anatomy and have a face like that just extend out of the shell, kind of a cross between a turtle and the "doodle bug" Muppet characters on SEASME STREET." In addition, I was also very much inspired by the flamboyant caricatures of Brazilian musicians in a book called "Echole!", which had been lent to me by fellow artist Haroldo Guimaraes.
I did a few quick scribbles of the crab I envisioned and Kevin was nice enough to submit them to the directors at one of his sessions working on 'Ursula' and various other characters. A bit later I got a call from one of the production secretaries: Howard Ashman had seen my drawings on John Musker's desk and reacted favorably, so the directors wanted me to work up a more finished model sheet... WOW!
There was only one problem: I couldn't really pull it off.
I was still very inexperienced at the time and although I could get lucky with the odd scribble, I had never designed a feature character before and could only bring the drawings to a point. Story artist Ed Gombert and animator Chris Buck worked up the design a good deal more successfully as storyboarding began, and then that work in turn was handed to the amazingly gifted Duncan Marjoribanks, who, as Supervising Animator, ultimately fashioned the character into the version we all know and love.
Duncan is one of the greats of our generation and one of the very first to animate with his own personal vocabulary of acting ideas. He was also nice enough to assign me a number of scenes on the character during production (such as the crab hiding from the chef in the kitchen). Like every character, 'Sebastian' is a conglomerate of story & song work, voice over talent (in this case the wonderful Sam Wright, who gave his own individual spirit to the character) and gifted animators, like Duncan Marjoribanks, who deserves all credit due. And thanks to Kevin Lima, I still get to look at the character and know that a bit of his initial DNA came from me.