Ariel and major supporting characters, from a VHS cover.


Original medium: Prose fiction
Published in: Denmark
First Appeared: 1836
Creator: Hans Christian Andersen
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For decades, Walt Disney has had a reputation for taking familiar concepts and remaking them, to the point where the Disney version overshadows the original in the public mind. The story of The Three Little Pigs is a good early example, and the practice continued into the animated features, such as Peter Pan and Song of the South. In fact, Disney's company continued it long after his death, in productions …

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… such as The Rescuers and Gummi Bears. Possibly the best example in recent years is The Little Mermaid.

"The Little Mermaid" was written by Hans Christian Andersen, and published in 1836, in Denmark. Like most of Andersen's stories, it was quickly translated into dozens of different languages, and published all over the world. This particular one was especially well loved, and the character became a national symbol of Denmark. In 1913, a statue of her, sculpted by Edvard Eriksen and based on a performance of the character by ballerina Ellen Price, was donated to the country by philanthropist Carl Jacobsen. It has since been seen by over a million tourists in Copenhagen's Langelinie Yacht Harbor.

Disney's wasn't the first animated treatment of the story (it was preceded by Russian and Japanese versions, among others), but it's by far the best known. It made its premiere on November 15, 1989, and went into general release two days later. The directors were Ron Clements and John Musker, who also collaborated on Disney's Hercules, Aladdin and Treasure Planet. The story followed Andersen's original — mostly.

The first notable difference was in giving the characters names. The Little Mermaid herself, identified in Andersen's original story only as the youngest of the Sea King's six daughters, was Ariel. The Sea King was Triton. The Sea Witch, whose gift of human form came with such a terrible price, was Ursula, and she was strikingly designed with octopus legs. The prince Ariel loved was named Eric. Also, there were a few new characters — Ariel's friends Flounder (a fish) and Scuttle (a seagull), her music teacher Sebastian the Crab, and a couple of Ursula's minions, eels named Flotsam and Jetsam.

Another major change was to give Ursula a bigger role, taking active steps to ensure Ariel's failure to meet the conditions of the bargain. But the biggest change of all was in the ending. In Andersen's story, the Little Mermaid failed to win her prince's hand in marriage, the penalty for which was to be transformed into sea foam; but in the Disney version, Ariel and Eric lived happily ever after.

Ariel's voice was provided by Jodi Benson (Tula in Pirates of Darkwater). Eric was Christopher Daniel (several voices in Captain Planet). Ursula was Pat Carroll (Ms. Biddy McBrain in Galaxy High School). Triton was Ken Mars (who also had "face" roles in TV productions of Superman and Wonder Woman). Sebastian, who at least temporarily stole the show in the spectacular production number "Under the Sea", was Samuel E. Wright (also heard in Marsupilami and Dinosaur 2000).

The custom was no longer practiced of Disney animation stars immediately becoming ongoing comic book characters, but Ariel did appear in a few during the early 1990s period when Disney was publishing its own comics. She also had a couple of Little Golden Books devoted to her, and was merchandised in the form of toys, clothing, music and in every other conceivable way — in fact, with the possible exception of the previous year's Roger Rabbit (whom Disney owned only partially) she was the most successful new Disney character since their version of Winnie the Pooh.

On September 12, 1992, Ariel became the first Disney feature character to star in a half-hour TV series, in her original form. Here, as in the comic books, the stories took place before her transformation to human, and concerned her adventures with Flounder, Scuttle and Sebastian, in and around her home town of Atlantica. The voice actors all reprised their roles, including Ursula, who was frequently seen as a villain. They did the same in Disney's House of Mouse, the early 21st century Saturday morning series where practically any Disney cartoon character could turn up and these did more frequently than most.

Ariel and her friends were also animated in a couple of "making of" video productions, and Sebastian was marketed as a separate character in a few comic books and volumes of music videos. On September 19, 2000, Disney released a straight-to-video sequel, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, which concerned Ariel's daughter, Melody (Tara Strong, who also voiced Timmy in Nickelodeon's Fairly OddParents), in a struggle against Ursula's sister, Morgana (voiced, like Ursula, by Pat Carroll). Another sequel is scheduled for August, 2008.

It's anybody's guess whether Melody and Morgana will become permanent additions to the Disney cast of characters. But Ariel, Ursula and Sebastian certainly have.


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Text ©2004-09 Donald D. Markstein. Art © The Walt Disney Company.