Director Rob Marshall knew early on that the hardest part of his live-action reimagining of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” would be making the Oscar-winning Caribbean musical “Under the Sea.” It was not only the complicated 2D-to-CG translation with hundreds of photo-realistic fish singing in the underwater environment (courtesy of MPC’s animation expert), but also the complicated dance choreography set to the touching song by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (to whom the film is dedicated).
And they killed it: the joyful musical number is the animated highlight of the film, which deservedly earned the loudest applause at the first screenings.
Performed by Sebastian the Crab (voiced by Daveed Diggs), the song is a plea for young mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) to forget about joining Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) in the human world and remain bound to the sea where she belongs. . Considering the beauty, the wonder and the fun, she makes a compelling musical argument.
The first decision, however, was figuring out the animated design of the sea creatures, especially Ariel’s companions: Sebastian, Flounder the Angelfish (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Scuttle the Seagull (voiced by Awkwafina). Marshall absolutely wanted a photorealistic look with “The Blue Planet” as a model. This meant a careful redesign that suited the live-action world of the film.
“I really wanted you to be engaged and believe that these (characters) are real because you’re following their story,” Marshall told IndieWire. “Obviously, fish talk and crowds sing, but we based all those characters on a real crab, real fish and real birds. We can’t use an animated fish to play Flounder because we’re creating a real world. Also in our version we decided to make Scuttle a diving bird. We never wanted Ariel to ever, ever cross the surface because we wanted to up the ante of that moment instead of going up and down and up and down like she does in the animated film. It was something that she was forbidden to do and a rule that she only breaks after she sings “Part of Your World”. That, to me, made the storytelling that much more exciting.
But when it came to planning “Under the Sea,” Marshall didn’t know where to start. “We were disheartened by this because we have a live actor in this huge production number,” Marshall said. “And I remembered that Walt Disney had worked with the Ballet Russes when he was creating ‘Fantasia’ (for the ‘Nutcracker’ suite), so his artists of him would have some shapes to work with, some dancers to work with . So we brought Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to London to work with our VFX artists. And we asked this beautiful company of dancers to literally replicate the way they (each sea creature) moved so that we could use that as a model for our artists to create this massive production.
Marshall chose choreographer Joey Pizzi and co-choreographer Tara Nicole Hughes with the creation of the movements for the creatures of the sea. And they literally listened to particular types of sea creatures whose bodies lent themselves to dancing naturally. These included jellyfish, sea turtles, ribbon eels, flatworms, lipids, and a mimic octopus. “We had this plethora of choices,” Marshall continued. “There’s already a ballet under the sea going on anyway. When you look at “Blue Planet,” it’s like, wow, that’s it. So it was exciting to pick and choose which ones to work from.
All underwater scenes were shot “dry for wet” with blue screen and VFX enhancement. “If you were in the room when we were creating it, you would have a girl sitting there as everything revolves around her,” Marshall said. “We’re saying, this is going to be here and this is going to be over there, and we had the puppeteers. We’ve done quite a few production numbers in our lifetime, and this is definitely the most challenging.