Jodi Benson on the 30th Anniversary of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and The Chances of a Disney Princesses Movie

The iconic voice of Ariel discusses the ongoing legacy of the movie and her character as well as the inevitable live-action remake.
By  · Published on February 12th, 2019

This fall marks the 30th anniversary of the release of The Little Mermaid, which kicked off a renaissance for Disney animated features and remains one of the most popular films from that era. Jodi Benson, who voices the title character, Princess Ariel, has helped to continue the legacy, reprising the role in sequels, television cartoons, video games, and more. Most recently, she got together with the actresses who voice the rest of the Disney Princesses for a special crossover cameo appearance in Ralph Breaks the Internet. Benson will also soon reprise her other major Disney animated character, Barbie, for Toy Story 4, out this summer.

In anticipation of the simultaneous release of a new 30th-anniversary edition of The Little Mermaid and Ralph Breaks the Internet on video (both are available digitally on 2/12 and on Blu-ray on 2/26), I talked to Benson on the phone, which is truly like talking to Ariel herself. We chatted about her favorite part of the former and whether the success of her part in the latter could lead to more Disney Princess get-togethers. We also discuss how she was cast, what’s made Ariel remain such a constant favorite, for both longtime Disney fans and new generations of young girls, plus the inevitability of the live-action remake.

Below is our conversation in full, save for one brief moment in the middle where my recording software crashed.

This isn’t just the 30th anniversary of you playing Ariel but the 30th anniversary of you beginning a role you’ve been playing ever since. You’re still Ariel. What’s it like to continue that legacy? Has anything changed since 1989?

As far as Ariel goes, nothing has really changed since ’89, which makes it so wonderful. It feels like I did the movie about a week ago. It keeps it very fresh and new in my mind. It’s such a good memory that every time I start to speak or sing, it’s like it was last week. It’s so fresh for me. And I love that about the element of the time that’s gone by that to me it just doesn’t feel like it’s been that many years.

Do you think anything would have to be different about the movie if it were made today?

Because we are mostly based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, you need to stay true to that as much as possible. Obviously except for the tragic ending. I think that for 1989 having been [Aurora from] Sleeping Beauty was the previous Princess, and all those years that went by in between Sleeping Beauty and Ariel, we made that jump really nicely and brought in a lot of different character qualities — strength and independence and a stubborn willingness about her and her tenacious spirit and determination — I think she’s a really strong character and can still hold true here in 2019. But again, for 1989, we needed to stay within the parameters of the fairy tale itself since it’s not an original script.

Do you have a favorite visual moment from the movie?

I think for me, I particularly love the animation that Glen [Keane] brought to “Part of Your World.” I love all the elements he incorporated from my vocals as well as the animation throughout the water scene. I just love that whole scene. I think it’s so glorious and so beautiful. That’s definitely my favorite as far as the look of the film and just the cinematography of it. Even though it’s animated, it just has a real feel to it for me. And of course you know the music and the score are just brilliant.

I’ve always been fascinated by just how iconic your voice is as Ariel and yet she’s voiceless for so much of the movie. Did you feel like you are still a part of Ariel through that whole section?

Glen Keane, who was my lead head animator, and I became really good friends, and he describes it in a special way that made a lot of sense to me. He said, “You know, we have these thumbnail pencil sketches of Ariel and have this concept of Ariel but it wasn’t until we went in the studio…” He said, “I was sketching and I’m videotaping you, and you’re bringing her to life. That’s when she was born. That’s when Ariel became Ariel. It’s when the life you bring as a voice actress kind of infuses into it, and all of a sudden Ariel becomes real.” I thought that was a really neat way for him to describe that. Even though she loses her voice, you still see her personality shining through as she’s silent. That’s the beauty I think of what Glen brought to her as well as. The beautiful way that they could tell the story through their drawings.

One of the ways I think Ariel’s voice has remained so iconic is that you weren’t a famous person cast in the role. You were well-known on the stage but this was before Hollywood really started getting big celebrities for animated movies. 

I think the beauty of Howard (Ashman) and Alan (Menken) and Ron (Clements) and Jon (Musker), our directors, is that they weren’t looking for celebrities. They’ll tell you, “We didn’t know what we wanted until we heard it.” So listening to 300 or 400 reel to reel tapes for Ariel from New York, LA, and London. I was like, “How come you picked mine?” [They were] like, “Once we heard it, we knew that’s what we wanted. We knew when we heard you, that was Ariel.” There’s really no other way to explain it. It was just quite miraculous that mine was selected.

For Howard and Alan, it was natural for them to come to the Broadway community. And in doing that, of course, you’re not necessarily coming to the world of celebrity. To them, a name or a celebrity or a star or something like that, or a TV or film person, was not of any importance. They just wanted to make sure… of course, all of us did our own singing, as well. We’re one of the only pictures that have that. So the whole celebrity thing was not part of the equation for our team on Mermaid whatsoever. I think it’s nice not to necessarily have a celebrity attached to it, so then you think of Ariel and you don’t think of the person. Which I think makes it kind of special as well.

Given the popularity of your part with the other Princesses in Ralph Breaks the Internet, do you think it’s time for a Disney Princesses crossover movie?

Yeah, you know what? For all of those girls, when we got together a couple times — we met two summers ago and then we got together again at the Ralph Breaks the Internet premiere — we talked about wouldn’t it be great to have like a “Princess Posse Power” movie. I mean that would be so much fun to figure out how to do that. I don’t know if Disney would ever do something like that, but I thought there are lots of things you could do with that. And the response from Ralph Breaks the Internet during those two scenes for the Princesses was pretty strong and you could tell that people were really enjoying it. That makes it very fun. So it’d be kind of fun to see if that happens in the future. I definitely would love to see that happen. I think that’d be fun.

I’d also love to see what happens when Ariel meets Barbie from the Toy Story movies.

I think that I’d like to see that, too.

Eventually, Disney is going to do a live-action reimagining of The Little Mermaid. Will you be involved in that somehow?

I know. I’m excited to see if that really does happen. Of course, I’d love to be anywhere near that set. That would be incredible just to watch all those brilliant people working. Of course, it would be an honor to be a part of it in any way shape and form. I don’t know if that would happen, but that certainly would be fun if it did.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.