An Interview With John Musker and Ron Clements, Writers and Directors of The Little Mermaid

Image: Disney
Image: Disney

The animated classic The Little Mermaid comes out on Blu-ray DVD on October 1st and I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with John Musker and Ron Clements who wrote and directed this much-loved movie.

I was in college when The Little Mermaid debuted in theaters. It was a big deal. I went to see it more than once with my friends who were all amazed, and we weren’t alone. The Little Mermaid kicked off a slew of incredible animated films from Disney that have won countless awards as well as the hearts of kids and adults alike. Did they have any idea that they were working on something that would be so big? Surprisingly, they didn’t have a clue.

“We both aspired to work at Disney and had been there for quite awhile, but Mermaid felt like it was kind of special ’cause it was the first film that was a fairy tale, it harkened back to Snow White and Cinderella. So we felt a certain amount of pressure with that. But, um, but no. We didn’t,” said Ron.

Upcoming Little Mermaid Products, Image: Nicole Wakelin
Upcoming Little Mermaid Products, Image: Nicole Wakelin

The pair talked about how, while working on the film, they had really high hopes and thought it was going to be good, but that you just don’t know how the public will react until they see the movie themselves. They did get a little bit of positive feedback along the way that should have been a hint that they were on to something.

John said, “Just as this movie was about to be released I think somehow Spielberg, I don’t know if he had even seen it, but Peter Schneider, who was an executive at the time, we were in this room for something else, he said, ‘Steven Spielberg says it’s gonna make a hundred million dollars.’ And so we were like, ‘Really? Spielberg thinks it’s gonna make a hundred million dollars?’ And so we were getting, there was excitement building.”

But it wasn’t Speilberg who made them feel like the film was a hit, but a little girl. John remembers the October after the film’s release, “After the movie had come out, knock on the door, you open it, you know, ‘Trick or Treat!’ and there’s a little girl dressed as Ariel. I thought, ‘We made it into the popular culture! We crossed over! This is not even one of my own children! This is a stranger!'”

What that little girl may be wearing now. Image: Nicole Wakelin
What that little girl may be wearing now. Image: Nicole Wakelin

The pair also talked about the path that led them to Disney, a company they both hoped to be a part of from a young age. They were inspired watching Disney films, movies like Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, and became regulars at their local libraries where they checked out books that would teach them all about the art of animation. Their interest and talent would eventually have them learning from Disney legends.

“The guys who worked on Snow White and Pinocchio were our teachers. They called them the nine old men,” said John. “And I worked with Frank Thomas who is a legendary animator who did Captain Hook and Pinocchio and a lot of the Dwarfs in Snow White and did the spaghetti sequence in Lady and the Tramp,” Ron shared.

Since The Little Mermaid‘s success, both John and Ron have worked on other great animated films like Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and Hercules. Of their success, Ron talked about a few things he thinks all good films have in common.

“…whether it’s hand drawn or digital or puppet animation or whatever, I think, the thing they all sort of share in common is wanting to create really strong characters…the characters that you really believe in that come to life and they have to pull you into the story…and story is just as important. I just to try to really get good stories.”

Talk about character, who doesn't know Ariel? Image: Nicole Wakelin
Talk about character, who doesn’t know Ariel? Image: Nicole Wakelin

Ron closed with a comment that, I think, sums up the reason we all, kids and adults, can get lost in an imaginary animated world with talking fish and singing crabs.

“…another part just sort of buys into the fantasy so that when it works, when it’s over you actually feel almost like you’ve been transported somewhere and you’ve had this kind of magical experience, which really was that kind of Disney experience. So, that’s still the case, I think. It’s not easy to involve an audience in the sort of make believe everything is sort of just made up. But when it works it is really sort of magical and special, I think.”

You can pick up the very magical The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition on Blu-ray/DVD on October 1st.

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