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Eisner had supposedly begun to despair at the idea that the cash cow which was the "Little Mermaid" (Which -- now that I think of it -- would probably technically have to be classified as a sea cow ... Sorry. No more lame manatee jokes. I promise ... ) was about to run dry, when Jim Henson allegedly popped up and said "Let me see if I can't do something with the 'Little Mermaid' characters."
And that proposed show -- my friends -- is what has now become one of the best kept secrets about Jim Henson's short, creative tenure at the Walt Disney Company. Never before revealed. Til now.
For years now, people have wondered what might have happened had Henson been given the opportunity to work his magic with Disney's characters. Rather than the other way around. Well, the truth of the matter is, folks, that -- just before he died -- Jim actually did get that opportunity. And I've seen the pilot for the show Henson proposed -- "The Little Mermaid's Island" -- with my own two eyes to prove it.
So what was this "Little Mermaid" TV show supposed to be like? Well, keep in mind that Henson was trying to create a program that was supposedly going to be shown on the Disney Channel. So the audience that "The Little Mermaid's Island" seemed to be aiming for was pre-schoolers. You know, the "Playhouse Disney" crowd.
Watching the pilot today, one can't help but be struck by the similarities between "The Little Mermaid's Island" and the Disney Channel's new hit series, "The Book of Pooh." Both programs make extensive use of puppets performing in front of blue screen / green screen, with elaborate backgrounds and settings being added in post production (and the puppeteers that actually move those Disney characters being eliminated entirely). Plus there's a sweet, gentle spirit that pervades both of these shows. (Now that I think of it, I can't help but wonder if -- as some Disney Channel executives were knocking around ideas for new programming -- some network flak with a pretty good memory didn't chime in with "You know that 'Little Mermaid' puppet thing that Henson did for us back in 1990? What if we did something similar today -- only using the characters from Winnie the Pooh this time around?" Hey, stranger things have happened, kids. Anyway ... )
The key difference between "The Little Mermaid's Island" and "The Book of Pooh" is that Henson's "Mermaid" show would have featured live actors performing right alongside the puppets. Ariel was played by this lovely young woman (Whose name escapes me at the moment) who wore a fake mermaid's tail whenever she appeared out of the water. During those scenes, the actress usually sat on a rock at the water's edge on a tiny tropical island -- her tail swishing about. The island set itself was real. The horizon beyond the island as well as the water just off-shore were chroma-keyed in after the fact.
The slim thread of a story that ran through the pilot had the human actress version of Ariel interacting with puppet versions of Sebastian, Scuttle and Flounder. These puppets -- which were supposedly produced by Jim Henson's Creature Shop exclusively for use in this pilot -- were right on model, folks. They looked exactly as the cartoon characters did when they appeared in Disney's 1989 feature length animated film. Though -- if I'm remembering correctly -- Flounder now had a twin sister. A feisty little girl fish called (I think) Fin.
For sequences when Ariel was supposedly underwater -- swimming from one place to another -- Henson would swap medium shots & close-ups of the human actress actually smiling & swimming (from the waist up, anyway) underwater with long shots of a half-sized Ariel rod puppet -- which a team of puppeteers would manipulate in front of a blue screen to make it appear as if the Little Mermaid were in fact swimming along through the briny blue.
Oh -- here's an extra added bonus for all you trivia buffs out there: There was also one other human character featured in the pilot for the proposed "The Little Mermaid's Island" TV series: The Admiral, a gently comic character (dressed up like some nonsensical naval officer straight out of "H.M.S. Pinafore) who lived on an island right across the bay from Ariel's. As part of the pilot's storyline, Ariel & her puppet pals swam over to the Admiral's island to pay him a visit. Before they got there, though, I seem to recall that the Admiral was playing a musical variation of hopscotch. The character produced different musical tones as he hopped on the planks that made up the pier in front of his island.
And who was it that played the Admiral in Henson's "Little Mermaid's Island" pilot? This one, I remember, folks: British character actor Clive Revell. Best known these days for his work in 1980's "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back," where Clive provided the vocals for the original version of the evil Emperor. In "Return of the Jedi," "The Phantom Menace" and the opening-next-summer I-can't-believe-that-George-Lucas-really-wants-to-call-Episode-II "Attack of the Clones," Ian McDiarmid would play the once and future emperor with great panache. But the first time Darth Vader's boss ever appeared on the big screen, it was Revell who was reading his dialogue. Not McDiarmid. Just another pointless bit of trivia that I thought I might share with you folks. Let's get back to the real story now, okay? ...
Anyway ... Based on the copy that I saw, the pilot of "The Little Mermaid's Island" has plenty of charm. So why didn't Disney go to series with the program? If I understand correctly, the pilot was shot just prior to Henson's death in late April of 1990. The post production / special effects work on the show was done over that summer (During that period where no one at Henson Productions or the Walt Disney Company knew for sure if the merger was going forward or not). The finished pilot was delivered to Disney Channel executives sometime in the late fall of 1990, just before the acquisition talks finally went ker-flooey.
At that point, what with the Henson family officially pulling the plug on the merger (Thus eliminating the Mouse's access to all the talented puppeteers and special effects artists who'd actually put the "Little Mermaid's Island" pilot together), company officials felt that there was just no way that Disney could now go forward with this particular project. So -- as good as the pilot for the proposed "The Little Mermaid's Island" TV series might have been -- the proposed series was shelved in the winter of 1990 / 1991.
This was exactly the sort of reason that Eisner wanted Henson on board at Disney. To pull ideas for great new movies & TV programs out of opportunities that only Jim could see. This is why you want to keep geniuses around you. Because they really do think differently / see things differently than you or I.