[Spoiler alert: This review explains in detail both the contents and storyline of the new attraction, including its divergence from the movie.]
At the end of the new The Little Mermaid – Ariel's Undersea Adventure attraction at Disney California Adventure park, an animatronic figure of Scuttle, the scatterbrained seagull who serves as the ride's narrator, says, "And that's the story of our mermaid... or at least how I remember it." Had Disney presented that dialogue at the beginning of the five-and-a-half-minute ride, it would likely have averted the complaint some people expressed after taking a sneak peek last week, that the ride's story doesn't exactly match the movie.
Like most movie-based attractions, the Imagineers faced the challenge of telling a story based on a feature film over 90 minutes long, in the confines of a far shorter ride—resulting in scenes, songs, characters and even entire scenes being skimmed over or omitted outright to meet the demand. But if you can set aside any expectation that this should be a scene-by-scene ride-through of The Little Mermaid movie, Ariel's Undersea Adventure is a charming voyage under the sea, and just the type of family-oriented, crowd-absorbing attraction DCA so badly needed.
During a media preview last week, Principal Concept and Show Designer Larry Nikolai and Director and Senior Show Producer Lisa Girolami discussed Ariel's Undersea Adventure, talked about the technological advances incorporated in the new attraction, and explained some of the decisions the Imagineers faced in telling Ariel's story in a theme park ride.
The voyage begins in the beautiful loading area, which features an 86-foot mural designed by Larry Nikolai, who also designed the bas relief figures of Ariel's sisters that adorn the building exterior. You board a "clamshell" (similar to a Haunted Mansion Doom Buggy) or a wheelchair-accessible "chariot" and begin your journey.
Scuttle begins to introduce the story, but in his characteristic absent-minded manner, can't seem to form a coherent tale. Since Scuttle was voiced in the film by the late Buddy Hackett, the Imagineers had to turn to a voice actor to record new dialogue for the attraction. Nikolai said, "This guy channels Buddy Hackett. Being in the recording studio with him was hilarious."
Scuttle's rambling narrative follows along as your clamshell turns and then tilts backwards, and you go "under the sea," with bubble effects projected on the clamshell in front of you, and a rush of cool air to help sell the effect.
You hear laughter and look up to see a projection of Ariel and Flounder swimming above you, before your clamshell turns to reveal Ariel's treasure-filled grotto. Here the little mermaid sings "Part of Your World" as Flounder swims next to her, and you can see a little Sebastian figure peering from behind some rocks. Ariel's hair moves around her shoulders, as if it's floating in a current. Nikolai noted that Ariel's hair is big. "We've taken you under the sea at that point, we couldn't just let it hang down; it just wouldn't have seemed right," he said. "We actually sculpted it in the upright position, and the difficult part about all that was deciding where to move it so it wasn't distracting from what you're supposed to be looking at."
You pass through another cave as you transition from the grotto to the next scene. On the left, a school of colorful fish swim beneath what appears to be another video screen. I thought one of the characters might make an appearance here, but the screen displayed only a water effect during my two rides. Then you're into the "Under the Sea" scene, a short scene in the original film but the largest set of this new ride. Girolami explained, "We had to create more of the 'Under the Sea' [scene], because those are very short little clips in the film, so Larry and team created this beautiful 'Under the Sea' world." There are 128 animated characters this scene, ranging in complexity from a whirling octopus and a lifelike Sebastian figure, to fish that bob back and forth and 50 sea stars that spin on the coral.
According to Nikolai, the eyes are the most important feature on a character, and thus warranted special attention during the creation of the Sebastian figure. "It's what people are always drawn to, so we went to an enormous effort to make this little guy with a little self-contained video projection system, where his eyes can do anything we want them to do," Nikolai said. "They can blink and change expression and look all around."
Girolami added that the technology caught up at the perfect time to let the Imagineers tell this classic story the way they hoped. "You have to think about Sebastian's head, the interior is about the size of a golf ball. To put a projection system in there and actually rear project on to those eyes, is pretty challenging. That's the great thing about getting to work with all these great Imagineers. We hadn't figured out how to do that when we first started out, but we said, 'We're going to do this.' It's always nice to just be a little ahead of yourself with your ideas, because then the guests get to benefit from all of these things."
I enjoy the music-driven energy of this room, but there are several elements that pull me out of the fantasy. The room is brightly lit, moreseo than it appears from these phot, which allows riders to see all the way across the set and into the clamshells on the other side of the curve. There is no sense that you're peering through deep water. You can also see the room's ceiling and many of the animation mechanisms, which gives this scene an "it's a small world" feel.
Near the end of this room you see the second Ariel figure; this one bobs to the music but does not sing. Again, I was intrigued by the motion of her hair. The Imagineers consulted with The Little Mermaid writers, directors and animators during the development of the attraction, down to the hair. Nikolai said, "We brought [writer and director team] Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] in two years ago, after we'd established the storyline. We showed them what we were doing, to get any advice that they had and also to get a little back story from them on the production." Girolami added, "We also had Glen Keane come out... when we were sculpting the first Ariel." Keane recommended that Ariel's hair be treated as a character all its own, and it's clear that the Imagineers took that advice to heart.
The next transition takes you into a cave guarded by Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula's evil eel sidekicks. Although these two have some dialogue, it's mostly drowned out by the music from the previous room. Next you'll find Ursula in her lair, singing "Poor Unfortunate Souls" as she hovers over a crystal ball showing an image of Ariel. Earlier this year the Disney Parks blog ran an article focusing on the Ursula animatronic, and they did not oversell how impressive the 7-and-a-half-foot tall figure is.
Girolami explained, "The animators of the original film had Ursula squashing and stretching as she's moving around, and that's something we've incorporated into the figure with her movements. I think if that wasn't in there, you'd notice." Nikolai discussed the design of the figure, saying, "Ursula's a funny character. Even though she's big and obviously she's the villain, she's still kind of comical-looking, so we were hoping to bring some of that out and make it not too scary for kids."
The ride uses four original songs from the film, with Ariel voiced by Jodi Benson, and Ursula by Pat Carroll. On the decision to use the original soundtrack, Girolami said, "Why record new songs when, first of all, the original songs are great, but second of all, that's what we've grown up with for over 20 years? If we re-recorded the songs a little differently, they'd feel a little different." Musical arranger and orchestrator Danny Troob wrote original music for the ride, including Scuttle's sea shanty from the opening scene, the descent and ascent themes, and the interstitial pieces between scenes. "The medley in the queue is all new," Nikolai said. "[Troob] took all of the songs and wove them into this beautiful medley that goes on for about 20 minutes."
You exit Ursula's lair through a cave filled with the glowing eyes of Ursula's past victims, and another projection screen shows Ariel in mid-transition from mermaid to human girl. Then you pass through a vine curtain and right into the "Kiss the Girl" scene, which offers a closer look at the Sebastian animatronic.
The next scene is the where the ride departs from the movie storyline, with a new ending that was created to fit the needs of the attraction. Ariel and Eric are shown in silhouette, with a golden light representing Ariel's voice shining from her throat, while an angry two-dimensional Ursula lurks in the background. It's a quick scene, and serves simply to move the storyline along to the big happily-ever-after ending where Ariel and Eric, dressed in their wedding clothes, wave from a balcony overlooking the ocean. King Triton makes his first appearance here, surrounded by creatures from the "Under the Sea" scene. This scene is set at night, and fireworks explode in the background, replacing the rainbow at the end of the original film.
"There was a wedding in the movie," Nikolai said. "We took it beyond the movie because, in a dark-ride environment, it is very hard to pull off a daytime scene and make it believable. Plus the fact that they were on this huge wedding barge, which would have taken up the majority of the set. And there's always something to be said for Disney magic of the nighttime sky and the black light and everything. So we decided to take it to the next step beyond the wedding, and do the reception instead."
Girolami talked about sharing the new ending with animator Glen Keane, saying, "We weren't sure what the reaction would be when we brought them in, because we kinda changed their ending. He loved it, especially for an attraction. We had that blessing early on, and we ran with it."
Nikolai noted that these last two scenes were the ones most reworked during the ride development. He said, "We had a hard time" [with the Ursula scene] "because we wanted to show how Ursula had been defeated, but it was a weird story line. Again, you're compressing an hour-and-a-half movie into five-and-a-half minutes. You just have to hit the key story points.
"We had 'Kiss the Girl' and the finale, which was a happy ending, and right in between them we had this dip with Ursula getting her comeuppance. It just felt funny in that compressed time, so we decided instead to keep it all on an up level, so we created that scene where they are kissing and she gets her voice back. Even though it's not in the film, you get those important story points.
"Later, we decided that we missed seeing what happened to Ursula—we saw her earlier, what happened to her—so that little animated figure of Ursula in the background there showing she's been defeated was the last thing that we added."
Asked what other elements of the movie the Imagineers would have liked to add to the ride, Girolami quipped, "The other 90 minutes."
Nikolai said he would have included the whole relationship with Ariel and her father, as well as another song. "There's one main song that is not in here, that hopefully people aren't going to notice," he said. "We didn't do 'Les Poissons.' To do that we would have had to take people to Eric's castle, and that would have broken the flow of the story. It's Ariel's journey, and it just did not include making a stop real quick at Eric's castle and going back to the story again, so that was one thing that we had to leave out."
Girolami added, "It would have been fun to put her sisters in, because they were so comical in comparison to Ariel."
How do the Imagineers feel after seeing the general public experience their ride for the first time? Nikolai described the experience as gratifying, and said, "It's just so good to see that, to see that they're enjoying it and that you've got their attention." Girolami added, "This is why we do what we do."