The Bits celebrates the occasion with this retrospective featuring a film historian Q&A. The article also includes a compilation of box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context and a list of the 70mm “showcase” engagements.
This segment of the article features a Q&A with Jeff Kurtti, film historian, author, producer and Disney authority.
Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, including Disneyland Through The Decades (Disney Editions, 2010), Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. More recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for The Walt Disney Family Museum. While with Kurtti-Pellerin Productions and TV is OK Productions, Jeff was involved with the creation of value-added content for numerous home-video releases (including material for several Disney titles). He was also a producer on the feature documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009).
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is The Little Mermaid worthy of celebration on its 25th anniversary?
Jeff Kurtti: The Little Mermaid marked a hugely successful and quite unexpected return of Disney Animation, in terms of artistic success, critical acceptance, and the commitment of the Company to Animation as a foundational element of its entertainment portfolio. This had begun by littles with The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company, but The Little Mermaid was a huge breakthrough. It felt like traditional “Disney,” but was also significant “modernization” of the archetype that audiences not only found accessible, but irresistible.
Coate: How is The Little Mermaid significant within the musical and animation genres?
Kurtti: As a musical, it hewed to the traditions of a stage musical in terms of its structure, musical conventions, and character development. This important fact is often forgotten, but what the film did first and foremost was return the screen musical form to acceptance and popularity, albeit within the very strict confines of a suspension of disbelief that only animation can get away with. This made it “safe” for audiences who had turned away from the film musical form to reengage with and embrace it again.
As an animated feature, The Little Mermaid showed that the art form, considered passé just a few years before, was actually quite vital and still could engage and enchant audiences as it had since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The strength of The Little Mermaid was bringing in new talents who had been raised on, and had deep respect and passion for, the form and its legacy—but who had little to no experience actually creating an animated feature.
Coate: Can you recall your reaction to the first time you saw The Little Mermaid?
Kurtti: I went to a preview screening at the old Avco Theater in Westwood, as I recall there were several Studio employees, press people, and critics there. I remember being enchanted and really pleased, but what I remember most was the spontaneous standing ovation the film got—from Studio “insiders” and film critics!
Coate: Where does The Little Mermaid rank among Disney films?
Kurtti: It signals the true beginning of the Third Golden Age of Disney Animation. (Unlike other scholars and historians, I place two distinct “Golden Ages” in Walt's lifetime: the first from 1937-1942, and the second from 1950-1961.)
Coate: What is it about fairy tales, in particular the work of Hans Christian Andersen, that translate well to a cinematic re-telling?
Kurtti: Fairy tales, folk tales, and fireside legends represent universal ideas, themes, and characters that have a cultural resonance strong enough to be recognized and familiar; at the same time they have been told and re-told enough times in varying versions that they are not sacrosanct to revision, reinterpretation, or adaptation—and some might say improvement.
Andersen can be troubling because his stories are often bleak, his heroes frequently die in aspiration of greater and more spiritual rewards than mortal life. There are frequently quite unhappy (mortal) endings in Andersen tales, as characters achieve nobility in sacrifice, or escape from earthbound hardships in death.
Coate: What is the legacy of The Little Mermaid?
Kurtti: From the strength of The Little Mermaid, Disney saw both the cultural and financial power and reward that a focus on animation as a film genre could bring—and they had a virtual lock on that genre. The success brought further innovation, and new voices and minds to a medium that had just a few years before been relegated to “kid's fare” or simply presumed dead as a cinematic form.
Coate: Thank you, Jeff, for sharing your thoughts on Disney’s The Little Mermaid on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its release.
THE LITTLE MERMAID NUMBER$
- 1 = Box-office rank among Disney animated movies (original releases only, 1937-1989)
- 2 = Number of Academy Awards
- 3 = Number of Academy Award nominations
- 3 = Rank among top-grossing movies during opening weekend
- 6 = Number of months between theatrical release and home-video release
- 13 = Rank among top-grossing movies of 1989
- 28 = Disney feature-length animated production
- 486 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing movies (domestic)
- 545 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing movies (worldwide)
- 994 = Number of theaters showing the movie during opening weekend
- $6.1 million = Opening weekend box-office gross
- $27.2 million = Domestic box-office gross (1997 re-release)
- $40.0 million = Production cost (estimated)
- $76.3 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
- $84.4 million = Domestic box-office gross (original release)
- $99.8 million = International box-office gross (original release + re-releases)
- $111.5 million = Domestic box-office gross (original release + re-releases)
- $211.3 million = Worldwide box-office gross
- $212.8 million = Domestic box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
- $403.2 million = Worldwide box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
THE 70MM ENGAGMENTS
The following is a list of the 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo first-run engagements of The Little Mermaid in the United States and Canada.
- 1989-11-15 … Los Angeles, CA – American Multi-Cinema CENTURY 14 <THX>
- 1989-11-15 … Los Angeles, CA – Pacific CINERAMA DOME
- 1989-11-15 … Los Angeles, CA – Pacific CREST <THX>
- 1989-11-15 … New York, NY – City GRAMERCY
- 1989-11-15 … New York, NY – Guild 50TH STREET
- 1989-11-15 … New York, NY – Loews 84TH STREET 6
- 1989-11-17 … Salt Lake City, UT – Mann VILLA
- 1989-11-17 … San Diego, CA – Mann CINEMA 21
- 1989-11-17 … San Francisco, CA – Blumenfeld ALHAMBRA
- 1989-11-17 … Santa Ana, CA – American Multi-Cinema MAINPLACE 6 <THX>
- 1989-12-15 … Mississauga, ON – Famous Players SQUARE ONE 4
- 1989-12-15 … Ottawa, ON – Famous Players RIDEAU CENTRE 3
- 1989-12-15 … Toronto, ON – Famous Players CEDARBRAE 8
- 1989-12-15 … Toronto, ON – Famous Players YORKDALE 6
- Michael Coate