More than 20 years ago (!), Disney's "The Little Mermaid" swam into theaters and revitalized the flagging Disney animation unit, which was, by that point, almost completely abandoned. It began the Disney Renaissance, as it's commonly known, anchored by films like "Aladdin," "Beauty & the Beast," and "The Lion King." But it's hard to forget that it all began with a mermaid.
The film, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, boldly wed Broadway-style theatrics and show tunes -- masterminded by the brilliant team of lyricist Howard Ashman (who also co-wrote and produced the movie) and composer Alan Menken -- with traditional Disney storytelling, one about a princess who strove to be something more. Beautifully animated, it was a movie that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and instantly became a classic that is still watched and re-watched today.
This week, the movie is released in a deluxe Blu-ray package that features scores of bonus features and a genuinely jaw-dropping new transfer. To mark this occasion, we got to talk to the Little Mermaid herself, the voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson.
We asked Benson what her very first memories of the project were, whether or not they knew it was going to be a classic from the get-go, and discussed bizarre "Little Mermaid" fan requests.
Could you take us back to your very first memories of the project?
I had my audition a good year before. It was just in a little rehearsal studio in Manhattan with an old fashioned reel-to-reel and I ran into the ladies' room and tried to think of the voice she would have, came back in, recorded some lines and a little bit of a song and about a year later got a call that my tape was selected. It was an unbelievable miracle. I have great, great memories of being in the studio, especially with Howard Ashman right next to me, directing every single syllable with Ron and John. Just really great memories of the process.
I'd heard that "Part of Your World" was something that almost wasn't a part of the movie for a little while. Did you join that fight with Howard to keep it in?
No, they kept that pretty quite from us, which was good. It was quite a significant battle. I think it caused quite a stir over at Disney for a while. But I didn't know about it. Howard told me about it later. "Hey, they were going to get rid of this song..."
Did you know that you were going to be in something that would be regarded as a classic?
No. We had no idea. Literally, no one was going to even know who we were. They were just going to run during the end credits. I was just going to go in and do my 14 days over two-and-a-half years and then go back to Broadway. It was a couple months before, when they started to do the screenings and word came back on the film that was so popular and positive. That's when Disney sent me out on a 22-city press junket and it was unbelievable. I had no idea. I thought we were going to be secret. There was such positive feedback that from that point on, it's just be a surprise.
Do you have a favorite Disney movie besides "The Little Mermaid?"
Well, I grew up with "Cinderella." So that was my go-to Disney film, definitely. It was princess-related and coming from a smaller area in Illinois and wanting to do something greater than myself in Broadway, that was a film that I could really relate to.
You've returned to do voice Ariel, including at the Disney parks. Why is it so important for you to come back?
What we try to do at Disney and through Disney character voices is really maintain the integrity of our classic characters, at all costs. So Ariel needs to be me for every project and if there are any other Ariels floating around out there, it's not necessarily Disney. As long as the actor can create the voice, we like to maintain that original integrity because with each generation of kids coming around, they want to be able to hear that, that's something that is important to them.
And it's great you're willing to do that.
Well, that's my fulltime job. That's my character. There are a lot of ancillary products that we're in the studio for every week, which is great. She's still going strong.
On the Blu-ray, it shows you going on the "Little Mermaid" ride at Walt Disney World. What was that like?
It was great. We opened the attraction in Anaheim first and then we opened the attraction at Walt Disney World in December and my kids and I shot the video in April. It was so much fun because they had never done anything like that, so they had an incredible time introducing the audience to New Fantasyland.
Are you ever surprised by the reaction to the character today?
Yes. It's very surreal. We were at the park a couple of weeks ago and I was riding the attraction with my kids. And I was looking at the other kids riding the attraction and I kept thinking, This is amazing! I never would have thought, 28 years ago, that I would be part of an attraction at Walt Disney World. It's pretty mindboggling. You're just so thankful. And I really feel like God has blessed me to have this incredible platform and continue to be a part of the Disney family.
Do kids come up to you from all over the world?
Yeah, because when I do symphony concerts and travel, we do have a lot of internationals that come. And they bring their Ariel products to have autographed. It's huge in Japan and China. Ariel and Disney, I've noticed, when I was in Japan with the Tokyo Philharmonic doing Disney concerts for a couple of weeks, and they are huge Disney fans. That was amazing.
What's the strangest thing anybody ever had you sign?
A child's underwear.
Wait the child was wearing the underwear?
Yeah, the child was in the underwear and they wanted me to sign the underwear.
Did you do it?
No... It was a two-year-old child. She just wasn't trying to be inappropriate or anything but I had to say, "Well, why don't we sign this?" But you have a lot of kids who want you to sign the clothing on their backs or their hand or their cell phone. Those are the popular ones right now.
What do you think the lasting legacy of "The Little Mermaid" is and why it's endured for so long?
I think it was the perfect timing, with the studio about to close and move off the lot. I think it was the classic story from Hans Christian Anderson. I think a lot of it was Howard Ashman and the brilliance of Broadway that he brought with Alan Menken and incorporating the music into the script and making it an interactive, Broadway-style experience. It was just what the studio needed to make a life change and create the second golden age of Disney animation. Everything just lined up perfectly. It was an incredible God moment.
"The Little Mermaid" Blu-ray is in stores this week.