BURBANK, CALIF. — `THE Little Mermaid'' opened up ``a whole new world that we'd never really experimented with in terms of animation,'' says Roy Edward Disney, a nephew of Walt Disney - whom he physically resembles in some ways - and head of the Disney studio's animation department. ``It's that undersea world,'' he continues, ``and all the fish and whales and dolphins and mermaids. The creatures all move in a different way, and the animators were enormously excited with it. They saw that it wasn't just another four-legged critter walking along!''
Is there a risk that an old-fashioned tale like ``The Little Mermaid'' won't click with today's moviegoers?
``You can make arguments both ways on that,'' says Mr. Disney with a smile. ``I think when you give 'em a real good movie, they haven't changed a bit. They still love what they've always loved.''
This doesn't mean the movie scene has been static. ``In terms of the vernacular,'' Disney admits, ``people have changed.'' One indication is the recent success of ``Oliver and Company,'' a Disney hit that set ``Oliver Twist'' in contemporary urban surroundings. ``It was told in a modern way,'' Disney notes.
``The pacing was different, and the dialogue was a little closer to today - without falling off the edge of, say, using four-letter words because they're there. I don't think storytelling has changed a bit, but the accent with which you tell the story has.''
Looking to the future, Disney thinks technical innovations will have a healthy effect on movie animation. His studio's next project, ``The Rescuers Down Under,'' will use a device known as CAPS, meaning computer-assisted postproduction system. While it facilitates the manipulation of cartoon images, however, this probably won't reduce the time needed to make a full-scale animated feature. ``The more gizmos you add,'' Disney says with a laugh, ``the more options you give the artists.'' So whatever efficiencies CAPS allows, ``the fooling-around time will probably make up for it!''
Computer methods may also allow the use of paints and colors that technical considerations used to rule out, and - ironically - might encourage a return to old Disney techniques that had grown too expensive under conventional labor-intensive conditions.
Coming up on the Disney slate is a new version of ``Beauty and the Beast'' and, one of these years, ``Fantasia II,'' which is a very bright gleam in Roy Disney's eye. He and his studio have been experimenting with ``nine-screen circlevision'' and 3-D techniques, and the ``Fantasia'' sequel could use these and other futuristic formats. Only time, and the evolving Disney philosophy, will tell.