Jodi Benson reflects on her Disney Princess legacy for The Little Mermaid’s anniversary
The Renaissance of the Walt Disney Animation Studios began with The Little Mermaid and Jodi Benson celebrates her iconic performance as Ariel, shares what it’s like to see the timeless appeal of the film, and her thoughts on its live-action future with Lin-Manuel Miranda stepping into the shoes of the movie’s legendary lyricist Howard Ashman.
This week the Walt Disney Signature Edition of the Little Mermaid hits store shelves and is currently available to own Digitally in HD, 4K Ultra HD™ and Movies Anywhere to add to your Disney Collection. It’s any Disney completist dream with behind the scenes features that include an incredible talk between the voices of some iconic Disney ladies around the piano with composer Alan Menken, a look at how live-action actors helped shape the film and unseen footage of recording studio sessions between the cast and Howard Ashman.
In honor of its 30th anniversary, ComingSoon was able to talk to the voice of the iconic mermaid princess, Jodi Benson, about the film’s impact on pop culture, Ariel as the princess who has given so many a voice including herself, her connection to Howard Ashman through The Little Mermaid, and her thoughts on the live-action adaptation bringing on board genius superfan Lin-Manuel Miranda.
CS: When you look back at Ariel’s legacy as the first Princess of Disney’s Renaissance era, the first who ushered in a new era of princesses with agency–that has since evolved with every Disney heroine that followed, what do you take away from that?
Jodi Benson: I think it’ incredible because the princess before Ariel was Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and we had this big gap of time that happened. I think it’s just so great for Ariel with her determination, her stubbornness, her defiance, she’s super tenacious and she goes for everything no matter what. She reached for the impossible and it gave kids hope to know that they could go after things that seemed to be difficult or unattainable. I’m excited that Ariel was able to start this new generation of princesses and we’ve seen the strengths that followed with the princesses after her all the way up to the past couple of years. I think we see that times are changing for these young ladies. I’m grateful to be part of the chain of command from the three original classics jumping Ariel and then onward from there. It’s all part of the process and it’s great for kids to connect to these characters.
CS: She’s the first princess to go viral through memes, makeup tutorials, cosplay, and YouTube music covers by amazing talent. What is it like to see Ariel have a big presence in the zeitgeist of our modern age?
Benson: It’s very rewarding and also kind of overwhelming for me to kind of look at the big picture of it. I’m so proud of the character and the film, proud that Ariel can take that next step for girls to feel comfortable in their own skin and be able to take those steps forward. It’s just such an honor, I’m so thankful, so grateful to be a small piece of this puzzle and I’m excited to see how all of our princesses and their impact have affected so many generations.
CS: You’ve beautifully spoken about working with Howard Ashman over the years representing the film and have shared his gifts through the music of the film, what would you say is the most lasting lesson he gave you?
Benson: I think to focus on storytelling. For him as a director and lyricist, the most important thing to communicate is story–the heart of the story. Especially in the Little Mermaid, even though they break into song, they are still monologues and still part of the story. What happens is that we just kind of run out of a way to express ourselves and the words just turn into song. So for me, storytelling is the key element for vocal work and I definitely learned that from Howard. Keeping things very real and authentic with a sense of vulnerability and less focus on performance and more focus on relaying the story to people so that they can make a connection through the heart.
CS: What is the biggest way Ariel helped you find your voice?
Benson: Something that I probably learned more over the last years as I got older is to not worry so much about what other people think of me or what they say about me. I need to be true to who I am and not to make my decisions or live my life in fear or make fear-based decisions over what is everyone going to think. At this point in my life, I really don’t care pretty much what anyone else thinks as long as I feel like I’m doing the right thing and standing for what I believe in. That would be a way that Ariel’s influenced me in finding my own voice.
CS: Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is known to be such a superfan of the Little Mermaid and is now part of the Disney family with his involvement in productions like Moana and Mary Poppins. What are your thoughts on his attachment to the live-action Little Mermaid and the possibility of his stepping into Howard Ashman’s shoes?
Benson: We’re so beyond thrilled that Lin-Manuel is going to be part of the Disney Family. Obviously, he’s a genius–very much like Howard, creative, ahead of his time. He named his son Sebastian if I’m not mistaken. I know Alan (Menken) is thrilled and excited to get to work with him. We’ve talked about that. He’s super excited because he knows that the creativity and the genius of Lin-Manuel is very similar to Howard’s so I think they’ll make a great team. I’m excited about the live-action, I think my old friend of 40 years Rob Marshall is going to be directing it. He did Mary Poppins Returns, I was talking to him three or four weeks ago and he said, ‘it looks like we’re doing live-action Mermaid!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, just stick me in there in any way shape or form.’ Just watching all the brilliance happening around me would be amazing! I’m really excited and I think the team of people that they have and what their concept is going to be pretty spectacular