Once upon a time, The Walt Disney Company was facing a period of struggle and decline in its animation division. However, all of that changed after the release of The Little Mermaid, which revitalized Disney animation production and ushered in the Renaissance era of Disney animation. This period saw the release of several other company classics and is remembered as a high point for the mouse.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the studio experienced a series of underperforming and less successful animated films. These failures led to financial difficulties and a decline in critical reception. These included
- The Fox and the Dog (1981) – $63.5 million
- The Black Cauldron (1985) – $21.3 million
- The Great Mouse Detective (1986) – $38.6 million
- Oliver & Company (1988) – $74.2 million
(Other than Oliver & Company, I would rank these projects among my favorite animated films. But that’s another story!)
During this period, Disney felt pressure from rival animation studios, particularly Universal, which turned An American Tale and The Land Before Time into financial successes. Oliver & Company still grossed $74 million, but those numbers pale in comparison to Disney’s golden era. Adjusted for inflation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs sold $1.011 billion in tickets.
Overall, the studio was able to make ends meet. Its Touchstone Pictures arm produced hits like Splash ($69.8 million), The Color of Money ($52.3 million) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids ($222 million). Disney also struck gold with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? ($329.8 million) in 1988.
However, when it came to animation, Disney hadn’t had a smash hit like 1967’s The Jungle Book ($378 million, adjusted for inflation and accounting for re-releases) in some time. The decline of Disney’s animated films had led critics and industry analysts to question whether audiences had grown tired of traditional animation.
What led to the Disney Renaissance era?
Everything changed on November 17, 1989. From the depths of the ocean emerged an unlikely savior – The Little Mermaid. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson classic, it follows a young mermaid who yearns for a life outside the sea. This cinematic tour de force featured breathtaking animation and compelling character designs crafted by the talents of Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Duncan Majoribanks and other talented artists. With its captivating narrative, unforgettable characters and infectious melodies, The Little Mermaid has captivated families around the world.
In total, this animated classic has amassed $211 million worldwide. (That equates to a remarkable $500 million in today’s box office landscape!) His triumphant performance not only marked a milestone for the House of Mouse, but ushered in a new era for the deflated company. The film’s box office success was a resounding testament to the continued demand for traditional hand-drawn animation. Additionally, he re-established Disney’s animation department as an unrivaled force and reasserted its position of prominence – and power.
Without the breakthrough success of The Little Mermaid, it’s plausible that we would never have known classics like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Mulan, or Tarzan. Instead, the studio may have taken a more cautious approach or embarked on different creative paths for future projects. Fortunately, that never happened.
Ariel paved the way for the renaissance era of Disney animationwhich included a new era of strong-willed Disney Princesses like Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan. Musical numbers such as “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World” became instant classics and continue to be celebrated and performed in various adaptations and media. The film led to a Broadway adaptation, a pair of direct-to-video sequels and an animated series – in addition to a wide array of merchandise including toys, clothing and accessories. Ariel is featured prominently in Disney’s various theme parks and video games to this day as well.
The film even won two Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. It kicked off an amazing collaboration that bled into Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Enchanted, and many more.
The impact of The Little Mermaid on the Walt Disney Company and popular culture cannot be overstated. Kids who grew up in the ’90s remember Disney’s cultural stock from that era. Each summer featured a new animated film with promotional ties splashed around the world. They’ve produced must-have entertainment and more or less morphed into an unstoppable superpower – for better or for worse.
So raise your glass to Ariel, the little mermaid who dared to dream and sparked a rebirth of magic and joy. Hopefully she will be “part of our world” for a long time.