Jim Henson's The Little Mermaid Island

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

“Music is everywhere! Music is in the air!
On Little Mermaid’s Island, come ashore!
Far from the quiet of the ocean floor,
If music’s what you’re looking for,
Come on and play!
On Little Mermaid’s Island, life is grand
Up where the waves caress the sand!
When you hear the Mermaid’s Island band,
Come on and play!”

That opening theme song was joyfully sung by a live-action Ariel the Little Mermaid and her friend, a puppet created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop of the crab Sebastian, in a television series that you will never ever see. In the past I wrote about some Disney projects that you probably will never see (link).

Just like my recent articles on the Disney Family Album series, I write these columns to document these forgotten projects and maybe spark the interest of the appropriate powers-that-be to consider re-releasing them even in some limited edition collector only format.

Like many of the readers of this column, I am not only a huge Disney fan but am also a huge fan of Jim Henson and his work, especially the original Muppets. Henson himself was a huge fan of Disney, as well, and flirted with the idea of merging with the Disney Company at least once or twice before a deal was put in process in late 1989 where Henson would sell his famous Muppet characters (minus the ones from Sesame Street) to the Disney Company. Henson was very tired of the business side and wanted to focus more on the creative side.

Henson was certainly innovative and part of the deal was that the Disney Company would have exclusive use of Henson’s creative services for 10 years. Unfortunately, Henson died on May 16, 1990 after organ failure from an advanced infection of a rare bacterium that was discovered too late for him to receive proper treatment in the hospital. With his death, the unsigned contract remained unsigned and the Disney Company would not acquire the rights to the Muppets until over a decade later in February 2004. (Negotiations with the Henson heirs fell apart by December 1990 and 1991 brought several lawsuits and hard feelings that took time to resolve.)

The initial delay in the final signing of the contract in 1990 was primarily the lawyers struggling over appropriate language in the legal documents including trying to define exactly what a Muppet was. However, it was clearly Henson’s intent to sign the contract since he was already deeply involved in several Disney-related projects including the much loved Jim Henson’s MuppetVision 3-D attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios.

In fact, there were elaborate plans to expand that area of the Disney-MGM Studios into a Muppet Studios location. I am very fond of Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano, but it was originally intended to be an interactive dining experience called The Great Gonzo's Pizza Pandemonium Parlor, where Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are running the place and things are constantly going horribly wrong both offstage and in the dining area itself (with Gonzo and Carmilla the chicken temporarily lost and stuck in the ducts over the guests’ tables at one point), but the food would be great. Of course, Gonzo and Rizzo had hired the Swedish Chef to run the kitchen and that makes things interesting especially when the kitchen doors explode open and there is a cloud of chicken feathers.

One of my favorite Disney live-action shows was the Hunchback of Notre Dame musical stage production in the Backlot Theater near New York Street, but that area was originally going to be the location for the Great Muppet Movie Ride. An amusing twist on the popular attraction at the front of the park, this ride would have featured The Muppets in homage parodies of Frankenstein (with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew as the good doctor and a 10-foot-tall Beaker with bolts in his neck as the monster), Peter Pan (with Kermit as Peter and dangling from an obvious cable Miss Piggy stuffed into a Tinker Bell costume and her weight and lack of coordination had obviously sent her crashing several times into the scenery as evidenced by the pig-sized holes) and even a scene from Pigs In Space.

So instead of expanding Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, maybe it is time to dust off some of those 20-year-old plans for Muppet Studios. In addition to other Disney Muppet-related projects from a parade to a live-action show, Henson was working on several other projects, including The Little Mermaid’s Island. Jim Henson died away about two months after the pilot for that never seen half-hour show for the Disney Channel was shot.

The animated feature The Little Mermaid had been released in the fall of 1989 and was an immediate hit grossing more than $200 million dollars worldwide. When the film was released on home video in May 1990, it was one of the highest-selling home videos up to that time, including 7 million units sold in the first month alone.

In the fall of 1992, an animated Saturday morning cartoon series of the adventures of a younger Ariel and her friends (before the events in the movie) debuted on CBS with many of the original voice actors reprising their roles from the feature, including actress Jodi Benson as Ariel.

However, the first attempt to tell the prequel tales of Ariel was in the hands of talented Jim Henson. From the L.A. Times on February 25,1990, in an article written by Stacy Smith:

“Kids who couldn't get enough of Disney's The Little Mermaid will have plenty of new mermaid adventure stories and music to look forward to if the Disney Channel's daily half-hour The Little Mermaid's Island show debuts before year's end, which looks likely. It's been in the planning stages, says producer John Purdy, since before the animated feature came out. Purdy says that four musical numbers per episode are planned, with ten songwriters already at work. For the TV version, Ariel the Mermaid will be a real-live lady—actress Marietta Deprima—whose island home and undersea grotto will be inhabited by Jim Henson puppet versions of characters from the film. Sam Wright (Sebastian the Crab) and Buddy Hackett (Scuttle the Seagull) are among those already set to reprise their vocal roles.”

Marietta DePrima graduated from Northwestern University in 1986 with a degree in Theater Arts and immediately got a role in an episode of the TV series Family Ties. She is probably best known to audiences for her role as “Sally Rogers” in the ABC/UPN sitcom The Hughleys. She married actor George Newbern in 1990, the same year she was working on the pilot for The Little Mermaid’s Island, and they eventually had three children.

If you want to see what the then-25-year-old actress looked like at the time of the pilot, she was in an episode of Coach released that year titled “Hayden’s In the Kitchen With Dinah” where she played the part of Dinah. DePrima had an extensive singing background, making her New York debut in the Broadway revival of Godspell (and much later singing on the soundtrack for DreamWorks’s first animated feature, Prince of Egypt) so she was more than capable of handling the demands for the Little Mermaid’s new songs.

The only other live performer in the series would be a British colonial ship captain named Grimsby (only called by name in the second episode). Instead of the stuffy, thin adviser and valet to Prince Eric in the original film, this Grimsby was played with a twinkle in his eyes by actor Clive Revill as an obviously well-traveled, well-fed, good-natured seafarer who is accompanied by his huge four-legged Muppet sheepdog, Max. Max looks like his counterpart in the original film and serves not only as a companion, but a first mate, always tying off the ship to the pier on Mermaid’s Island with his mouth.

Revill is a well-respected actor of stage, film and television, as well as quite accomplished at doing voice over work for animated cartoons. He seems to be having great fun playing the self-assured captain of a small ship. He is attired in a customized version of a traditional Royal Navy uniform, but with a gold vest and a tri-cornered hat probably to suggest roughly the same time period as the original animated feature.

All the other characters were performed by Muppets modeled after the characters in the original film: Flounder, Scuttle, Sebastian and Ursula’s two evil hench-eels, Flotsam and Jetsam. Flotsam and Jetsam are the villians of the show who instead of using physical violence, play seductive mind games to corrupt the good characters into doing something bad (that they learn to overcome and correct by the end of the half hour).

Two new major characters were also featured. Flounder, the little yellow and blue talkative young fish, who was Ariel’s best friend apparently had a twin sister named Sandy, who was yellow and pink and had eyelashes. She is only called Sandy in the second episode and appears to be related to Flounder rather than just a random girl fish of the same age. There was also a full-sized costumed character named Scales. Scales is a musical green dragon with pink highlights on his belly and tail who lives in a rock cave in the center of the island. Near the entrance to the cave is a double keyboard rock piano as well as a table with various pots and pans that Scales uses to create songs.

There are also a lot of miscellaneous Muppet aquatic characters like lobsters, octopus, shark, sea horses and assorted fish. Occasionally, there are some shots of real fish swimming underwater to act as a segue from one scene to another.

The island itself looks like an old-fashioned keyhole at first but closer examination shows that it is actually two separate bodies of land joined together with a curved rock bridge. That bridge allows the ocean to flow into a a large central lagoon and then back out to the sea on the other side. The smallest section of the island that is closest to the audience has a wooden pier that juts out into the ocean, allowing Grimsby to dock his ship for visits. The pathway to the curved bridge is actually a gigantic keyboard like the one in the movie Big that lights up and plays music depending where someone steps. The larger curved side of the island is covered with trees and rocks. In the exact center is a huge rock cave that looks more man-made than a natural phenomeon and is where Scales lives.

The series would have been done as a partnership between Henson and Disney. The Disney Channel program was aimed at a preschool demographic audience like similar programs including Welcome to Pooh Corner and Dumbo’s Circus. Basically, DePrima portraying Ariel would interact with the puppet characters and it would all be staged using chroma-key technology so that elaborate backgrounds for the island and under the sea could be incorporated with the real sets in post production.

Ariel’s costume was much more modest than the one in the film with its iridescent green scales covering the actress from the top of her chest all the way down to the finny tail. Filming reportedly took place in a very old studio in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles.

Since this series never aired due to the complications after Henson’s untimely death, the two episodes that were completed lack the final opening titles and there is no end credit listing. The post-production on these shows was done over the summer after Henson’s passing and delivered to Disney in the fall of 1990 to meet the contractual obligation. Disney passed on the series for a number of reasons, including probably no longer having access to the Henson team who were removed from all Disney-related projects as soon as they completed any existing commitments.

The half-hour pilot episode was titled "Sebastian’s Birthday," where it is Sebastian’s birthday and he is looking for his friends, unaware that they are secretly preparing a surprise birthday party for him. Sebastian runs into Scuttle the seagull who mistakenly thinks that Sebastian has said that it is “Bird Day.” Scuttle’s determined confusion and constantly mangling of words was obviously meant to supply humor. In addition, Scuttle was the primary object of physical comedy like bumping his head on the bridge because Sebastian cried out “Duck!” rather than “Seagull!”

As Scuttle leaves, Sebastian breaks into song about his “B-Day”: “It’s my B-Day. It’s my best day. It’s my birthday. It’s the day that I was born. It’s the day that I began. It’s the day that I became…the wonderful crab I am.”

He is accompanied by a chorus of pink singing oysters and an unseen steel drum band.

Ariel is in her underwater cave of treasures with Flounder and Sandy, and she has pulled out a one-of-a-kind teacup for Sebastian’s birthday gift. When Sebastian arrives and wants them to join him for some fun, they turn him away by singing: “I’m just so busy. So very busy. What a pity I can’t come out to play. You’ll really have to go now. I’m sorry for you know how much I’d love to have you stay. But I’m busy. Too busy to play.”

Sebastain suspects that something is fishy but leaves to visit his friend Scales. On the way he runs into the two eels who try to convince Sebastian that his friends have forgotten his birthday and don’t care about him.

Scales is having difficulty because the balloons he has blown up for the party keep popping. To try to distract Sebastian, Scales sings: “Bing! Bang! Bong! Let’s play a noisy song.”

All this noise give Sebastian a headache and he leaves to sulk in his underwater home after another confrontation with the eels who assure him there is no reason to have friends.

Grimsby and Max dock the ship at the pier and encounter the still confused Scuttle. The captain has brought a three-layer birthday cake for Sebastian’s surprise party.

While Max stays to watch the ship, Grimsby and Scuttle dance down the lighted keyboard pathway singing “Surprise! Surprise! I love the unexpected. Two happy guys who never feel dejected…because a big surprise is something we both can share!”

Ariel has accidentally broken the tea cup while trying to wrap it in seaweed and sings: “Oh dear. It’s broken in two. I can’t give him this. What will I do..to thank him for all the things he does? To show him I care because he’s a friend. Friends new and old are worth more than treasure to me.”

So with the help of Flounder and Sandy, she thinks of something else to give.

She shows up at the surprise party outside Scales’ home along with Scuttle, Scales and Grimsby who has brought not only a cake but candles. He tries ineffectually to explain the concept of birthday candles to Scuttle who originally thought the candles were candy.

Ariel, Flounder and Sandy go to get Sebastian who claims he can’t come because he is too busy. They drag him to the party anyway where they all sing a short reprise of “B-Day”. Ariel has written Sebastian a poem for his present and Flounder and Sandy have put it into a frame “so he can look at it every day.”

The show ends with the sight gag of an ecstatic Sebastian blowing out his candles with such force that the top tier of the cake blows off, covering Scuttle with frosting.

A second episode was completed titled Tell The Truth. In her cave of treasures, Ariel is showing Flounder and Sandy her extensive pearl collection that she keeps in a big clam shell.

Showing off, Flounder swims around and knocks over some of Ariel’s treasures and then sings: “Oops. Uh Oh. Never should have played around your stuff I guess. Oops. Uh Oh. Everything’s scattered and what a mess.”

Ariel forgives Flounder but tells him to leave her stuff alone as she goes topside to meet Grimsby who has promised to bring her a special surprise gift.

Once she is gone, the eels drop by and try to stir up trouble by suggesting the mermaid is bad because she won’t share her things. They goad Flounder into showing them Ariel’s pearls which he accidentally knocks over and spills on the floor. As they clean up the mess, the eels try to convince Flounder and Sandy in song to tell a little fib about what happened: “When you’re stuck in a mess, it’s so easy to slip in a little white lie. There’s no use in making waves. Why don’t you relax? Our advice is be cool as ice, falsify the facts. Who’s to know? Who’s to care? The truth’s not mandatory. It’s OK to twist around the story.”

Unseen, each of the eels take a pearl and swim off as Flounder and Sandy gather the rest to put back in the shell.

Grimsby has brought a small wrapped package for Ariel from the Spice Islands. When Grimsby docks, Ariel pops up and wants her gift. Grimsby hears an odd racket coming from the direction of Scales’ home and wants to investigate. He tells Ariel and Scuttle to wait and when he returns, they will open the mystery package together.

An impatient Ariel and Scuttle try to guess what is in the wrapped gift and sing their ideas: “What can it be? What can it be? I just can’t wait to see! Curiosity has got the best of me.”

Flounder and Sandy have decided to make up a story that a huge orange sea monster’s gigantic tail knocked over the pearls they have just finished collecting and put back in the shell. However, they are surprised by Sebastian and knock the pearls on the floor again.

Sebastian sings: “The moral to the story is very plain to see. There’s no need for lies or alibis. All you need is honesty. The truth. The truth. Feels so good to stop lying. The truth is always simple.”

Grimsby has discovered Scales bashing different items that have washed up on shore to try to create music because three musical spikes on his tail are broken. Scales sings: “I’ve got the broken down, tried to play it, makes me angry, I can’t fix it blues.”

Grimsby does fix the bent spikes with “a little bit of patience and little dab of glue”.

The eels argue over the two pearls they stole. They fight over who has the largest pearl. Ariel swims by and recovers her two pearls from the ocean floor and swims back to the cave of treasures. She discovers the truth that Flounder knocked over her pearls while showing off. Flounder swears to never play with Ariel’s stuff any more and she accepts the apology.

She has returned to take Flounder, Sandy and Sebastian with her to see Grimsby’s surprise gift opened. Unfortunately, Scuttle has already opened it and sneezed himself into a barrel on the deck of the ship. The gift was a box of pepper to season food.

Ariel and the gang arrive and Scuttle tries to lie that Max made him open the box. Scuttle is convinced to tell the truth and they all sing a short reprise of “The truth. Tell the truth. Feels so good to stop the lying.”

Scuttle continues to sneeze uncontrollably in the barrel as this episode ends.

While these episodes are not lost classics, they are light and well-made and would have been enjoyed by preschoolers. As always, I just wanted to document what information I had for future researchers and to solicit any additional information that readers might have. I found there was a lot of misleading or incomplete information about this project on the internet.

In the pilot episode there was a very brief shot (later repeated) from underneath showing Ariel swimming above in a real ocean but in shadows so that her face cannot be seen. It has been suggested that this was a half-sized Ariel rod puppet but I could not locate any confirmation of this statement and the image is so brief that it can’t be clearly identified.

Almost two years later, in January 1992, Voyage of the Little Mermaid live-action stage show opened at Disney-MGM Studios and still plays today in the theater that originally housed the stage show Here Comes the Muppets. The Little Mermaid animated series premiered with an animated primetime special in the fall of 1992 and then moved to the CBS Saturday morning cartoon line up and then, eventually, to the Disney Channel.

Jim Henson’s The Little Mermaid Island is just an interesting little anecdote in the history of Ariel and the legacy of Henson.