Those Faces! Those Voices! Behind The Little Mermaid's Box Office Splash Are Some Surprising Folks

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

It started a long, long time ago, in 1985, when Disney animated-film director Ron Clements was browsing through a collection of fairy tales and came across The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. "As I was reading it, "he says, "I thought, 'This is great. It's very exciting, I wonder why Disney has never done this before?' "Actually the studio had considered turning the tale—a soggy saga of a mermaid's high-risk love affair with a human prince—into a cartoon back in the 1940s, but Disney scrapped the idea because underwater animation seemed too difficult. When Clements pitched the story in 1985, however, the studio heads took the challenge. And are they glad they did. Placing among the top money-makers of the early holiday season, The Little Mermaid has won hosannas from the public and critics alike and was called "the best animated Disney film in at least 30 years" by the New York Times. Credit much of the film's success to Clements and his co-director-writer John Musker, who gave Andersen's tale an upbeat ending. (The mermaid dies in the original.) They fleshed out the characters of the mermaid and the sea witch and created such unforgettable supporting creatures as Sebastian, the snooty but avuncular crab, and Scuttle, the bird-brained seagull. Of course they had help from Disney's renowned team of animators, the composing duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (they wrote Little Shop of Horrors) and the people who brought the characters to life with their voices. Here's how it all came to be:

From the beginning, Clements and Musker knew they wanted a crab character to bridge the film's underwater and land scenes. But the most distinctive feature of Sebastian the crab-his Caribbean accent-came from composer Ashman, who felt that a calypso-singing crustacean would put a contemporary edge on the music. Sebastian's voice was found in the vocal cords of New York City stage and screen actor Sam E. Wright, 41. "Two of my college roommates were from Trinidad, and I knew the accent because we used to sit around pretending like we were all from the islands," says Wright, a Tony-nominated actor best known as the grape in Fruit of the Loom commercials. It wasn't until the microphone was raised above his head that Wright was able to capture an appropriately crabby sound. "It gave me a sense of what it's like to be little and how much noise you have to make to be noticed down there," says the 6'3" actor. "It gave me attitude." The animators agreed. When it came time to give Sebastian facial expressions, they used Wright's. "They didn't tell me he was going to look like me, too!" says Wright.

Compared with such Disney heroines as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid's Ariel is rebellious and headstrong, even pouty. In short, much like any other teen, mermaid or otherwise. "Ariel is a much more real personality," says Mark Henn, one of two directing animators responsible for the aquatic adolescent. She even looks different than her fairy-tale predecessors: She's the first Disney heroine to have red hair. "There was some controversy at first within Disney," admits Clements. "Some people had just come to expect mermaids to be blond. I think part of it was the Daryl Hannah influence."

Next came the search for the right voice-one that "captured the innocence and vulnerability of the character," says Clements. They found it in New York City stage actress Jodi Benson, 27. "I didn't realize how difficult it was to get across what you're thinking and feeling just by using your voice," says Benson. An even tougher task-emulating the mermaid's living conditions. "It really helped to turn the lights out and sit on my stool," sàys Benson. "It was hard to create a sense of being underwater."

Ursula the sea witch is an unctuous Disney octopus sashaying around the ocean floor in a strapless black evening gown. If she looks a bit familiar, it's because the animators who created her used half of Hollywood as inspiration.

"We first wrote her as kind of a Joan Collins type," says Musker. "She was thinner then, and we saw her as half woman, half scorpion fish." To get more contrast between Ursula and the mermaid, the animators began adding weight to the witch, eventually making her half woman, half octopus. "The model then became Divine," says directing animator Ruben Aquino, referring to the late star, of such cult films as Pink Flamingos.

So much for the body. For the witch's personality, they turned to Gloria Swan-son's portrayal of the washed-up actress Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard. And for the malevolent leer she's continually flashing at the naive Ariel, animator Kathy Zielinski turned to Jack Nicholson. "She watched the way he smiled in The Witches of East wick over and over," says Aquino, who supervised the Ursula animation staff. Award-winning stage and TV actress Pat Carroll provided Ursula's voice, using Tallulah Bankhead as a model. "They wanted me to make it as gravelly and dirty as I could," says Carroll, 62. The rest of the character she developed on her own. "She's a con artist, so I couldn't help thinking of a used-car salesman," says Carroll. "And because of her theatricality, I envisioned a has-been Shakespearean actress. Most actresses who haven't done classics don't have that kind of arrogance."

"I was a method seagull," says comedian Buddy Hackett, 65, who provided the voice of Scuttle. "I climbed up on the roof and jumped." Actually, to prepare for the role, Hackett went to Malibu to take a closer look at the birds. "They're terrorists," he says. "They'll pull and tear and eat anything." The seagull the producers had in mind for Scuttle, however, was more of a genial fool. "Something like the character Cliff on Cheers," Clements says. "A know-it-all but funny."

Signed to provide the bird's voice, Hackett wound up inspiring far more. "Buddy's wife took a series of photos of him doing all his facial expressions," says animator Dave Stephan, who was in charge of Scuttle. "I could not not use that face." Stephan then redesigned Scuttle as a caricature of Hackett. He gave him crossed, close-set eyes and Hackett's habit of talking out of the side of his mouth. He also gave the bird some extra pounds. "He started out as a skinnier character," says Stephan. "With Buddy's voice, we decided he needed to be fleshed out." Hackett's contributions didn't end there. Much of what he says in the film is ad-libbed. But Stephan insists that Scuttle is not just "Buddy Hackett in a seagull outfit. It's not all Buddy," he says. "Half of it's me."

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