To celebrate the 30th anniversary of two-time Academy Award winner The Little Mermaid, a Walt Disney Signature Collection Blu-ray has been released, containing all-new bonus features (with the focus largely on the film’s music) and a sing-along mode. Since the film’s theatrical release in November 1989, all ages have fallen in love with the magical, musical tale of the mermaid princess Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) and her sidekicks Sebastian and Flounder, as she triumphs over the sea witch Ursula and finds her place in the world.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Disney legend Jodi Benson talked about what it’s like to still be identified with Ariel, 30 years after the animated feature’s original release, when she realized that this character was going to be with her forever, the first time she heard and performed the film’s famous song “Part of Your World,” the princess text group that she’s a part of, getting to explore a different side of Ariel for Ralph Breaks the Internet, whether she got to revisit Barbie for Toy Story 4, and how much it means to her to be a part of the Disney family.
Collider: I very much appreciate you talking to me. I’m a big Disney fan and, of course, a big The Little Mermaid fan!
JODI BENSON: Thank you! That’s wonderful to hear. Thanks so much.
When you recorded your voice as Ariel for The Little Mermaid, could you ever have imagined that this film would still be so beloved, 30 years later, that you’d still be talking about it?
BENSON: I know! Isn’t it crazy?! It has just absolutely overwhelmed me. It’s a huge surprise. It’s incredible. No, I never dreamed, in a million years, that I would be cycling around with our fourth generation, chatting about our film that we did so many years ago. I could never have imagined it. It’s been a wonderful ride.
Was there a moment, over the years, where you realized that it was something that was just forever going to be a part of your life?
BENSON: I think it was during the first cycle of our re-release, at that five to seven-year mark. I was so shocked that the excitement and the enthusiasm for the film was as great, if not greater, than that first batch of years that went by. At that point, I realized, “This might be happening, every generation.” With that first go-around, it’s exciting and wonderful, and then time goes by. It was that first time, bringing it back up for the next generation of kids, that I thought, “Wow, they’re even more excited than the first go-around.” That was a wonderful surprise.
What do you remember about the first time you heard and performed “Part of Your World”?
BENSON: The first time that I heard the song was on a cassette player on my Walkman, with (lyricist) Howard [Ashman] signing it and (composer) Alan [Menken] playing it. We were in our apartment, and I popped it in the Walkman and listened to it, before I went to my audition, which was probably a couple of days later, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh!” Of course, Howard is a brilliant actor and singer, and I just loved what he brought to the character. I thought she was just so real and so genuine. I love story songs. I love songs that aren’t fully sung out. I love that it’s a monologue to pitch. I thought, “I can get myself wrapped around this. This is awesome.” So, I was very smart and I just imitated Howard. That’s exactly what I did. At the audition, I went into the ladies’ room and waited until it was empty, and then I looked in the mirror and started talking to myself. And then, I waited for my name to be called.
There was a big reel to reel machine in the studio, and they pushed play and record, and that was it. I started doing a little bit of the dialogue, and then I sang part of the song. I can’t remember if I was signing along with Howard, but I remember that I wanted to do it exactly like Howard had (on the recording) ‘cause it was so good. And then, the first time that I actually saw the film was a screening on the [studio] lot, out in Burbank. I was white-knuckling it, waiting for the song to come and wondering which version they picked, and I just loved it. I got so caught up in it that I forgot it was me. It’s a sign of a good film, when you can forget who the people are behind the microphone. If you can really just forget about them completely and get caught up in the story, that’s such a great thing.
Voicing one of the iconic Disney characters certainly makes you an undeniable Disney legend, but what’s it like for you, any time you get to spend time, compare notes or sing with other Disney legends?
BENSON: It’s fun because Paige [O’Hara], the singing and speaking voice of Belle, and Linda [Larkin], the speaking voice of Jasmine, and I are really good friends. We actually have a group text message. We have been connecting with each other, at various conventions, and we’ve had so much fun. Paige and I have been friends, since long before Mermaid. We met in 1981. I know her from Broadway, and from working with my husband on a Broadway tour of Oklahoma! He played Will Parker, and she played Ado, and they both were the standbys for the two principals, at that time. So, I’ve known Paige since long before I got married. It was so great, walking through the journey of her audition process.
I actually auditioned for Belle, as well. It was actually between Paige and I for Belle, which is really fun. I remember calling her the night before going, “Honey, I hope you get this.” And she said, “I don’t know. I think they want me to sound more like you.” I was like, “Well, that’s weird. You shouldn’t want to sound like me.” I remember Howard calling and saying, “You know, it was between you and Paige. We just felt like, with the fact that you’re gonna be connected with Ariel – your name and what you look like and who you are – that we probably should have two different people representing two different princesses.” I was like, “No, I’m so thrilled! I’m so happy!” I didn’t even expect to be in the running for it, so I was thrilled for Paige when she got it. It was really great to have two old Broadway girls in the Disney legends family.
What was it like to get to revisit Ariel for Ralph Breaks the Internet, in such a different way, especially getting to interact with the other princesses?
BENSON: That was so much fun. I do Ariel ongoing, with the games, the books, the talking necklaces, and all of that good stuff. It’s been an ongoing job, which has been wonderful. But with Rich Moore, who was the primary director that I worked with for Ralph, he’s so much like Howard. He can play all of the parts. We just laughed so much ‘cause he’d be like, “Now, in this scene, we have this going on,” and he’d play all of the other princesses with me. They were sweet to let me play with the script and be like, “Ariel doesn’t really know this word. She knows ‘fantastic’ and ‘amazing,’ but she doesn’t really know the words ‘gorgeous’ or ‘beautiful.’ Those aren’t really in her vocabulary.” They were like, “Oh, good. Make sure it sounds like Ariel.” So, it was a fun collaboration.
Besides (character designer) Glen [Keane] and (directing animator) Mark Henn and me, there are not a whole lot of other people that know Ariel like we do. Everybody else goes, “Okay, just make sure she sounds like Ariel.” I was like, “Okay, got it.” So, I got to play with the script, in that way, and that was really fun. It was really fun to take her out of her element, and for all of the princesses to be out of their element and to have so much fun getting to interact with each other. We wanted to make sure it was very real, in an authentic, vulnerable way. Not making fun of them was really big for me. I was like, “Okay, I wanna have fun and I want Ariel to have fun, but I don’t want her to be made fun of,” and they were so sensitive to that. We were all on the same page. I’m all for taking them out of the box, so to speak, and mashing them up, all into one world. I loved that because it lets this generation, in 2018 and 2019, fall in love with the princesses, in a new way, outside of the realms of their original films. For Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, especially, it’s a chance for this generation to fall in love with those three traditional, classic princesses, in a new way. I think it’s genius, I really do.