The character Ariel from Disney’s 1989 film “The Little Mermaid” is often referred to as the first modern-day Disney princess. Today her thick, red hair, green fins and beautiful singing voice remain iconic. While her hair and fins may be animated, it is the real-life Jodi Benson who lends her voice to the role.
Benson is an actress who has provided the voice for numerous animated characters. She also performed on Broadway and received a Tony Award nomination for “Best Actress in a Musical” for her role as Polly Baker in the Tony Award-winning show “Crazy for You.”
When Benson was offered the role of Ariel, she was a stage actress in New York City, standing at a payphone with a roll of quarters and no recollection of who Ariel was. “I actually forgot that I had auditioned for it,” explained Benson.
Although this phone call was life changing, at the time Benson wanted to keep her new gig a secret. Benson explained, “Voice over wasn't really very popular back then and wasn't a very good job to have. So, I kind of stopped talking about it.”
Benson flew to Los Angeles and began work on “The Little Mermaid.” When asked how she developed the character of Ariel, Benson said, “That's a simple question. It’s Howard Ashman.”
In fact, Benson gives all credit to the film’s lyricist. “Ariel is Howard ultimately. I just was really good at copying him,” said Benson. “He was in the studio with me for everything. Everything has his stamp on it.”
Although Benson looked to Ashman for help, she still found the process difficult and doubted her ability to portray the character, but Ashman assured her she could do it. “Howard was incredibly patient with me and constantly encouraging me,” said Benson.
“He was a perfectionist, as well as a genius, and so, people sometimes interpreted him being a little bit rough around the edges or being a little bit controlling. And those aspects of him are so minuscule in comparison to his heart.”
After Benson finished recording her lines and vocals for “The Little Mermaid,” she expected to return to the Broadway stage for eight shows a week with her voice credit going unnoticed. “No one would even know who Ariel was unless you stopped your VHS and looked at the names,” said Benson.
However, the Walt Disney Company had other plans. Before the film premiered Benson received a call asking her to join the press tour promoting the film. “That's when we kind of got the idea that something's going on with this particular film,” said Benson. “I thought it was a one-and-done, and here we are 30 years later still talking about it.”
At the time of its release, “The Little Mermaid,” received critical praise and ushered in the beginning of the Disney Renaissance, the time of critical and commercial success for Walt Disney Feature Animation between 1989 and 1999.
The film remains a favorite among Disney fans, and Benson has continued to reprise the role of Ariel throughout the past 30 years, including in the 2018 second installment of the “Wreck-It Ralph” film, “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Except in this film, Ariel is portrayed in a slightly more comical light.
“It was so fun to take a different look at Ariel, keeping her integrity and character, and the essence of her but putting her in sort of a different realm of interpretation,” said Benson.
Benson often appears at events celebrating “The Little Mermaid,” and in 2011 Disney presented Benson with the Disney Legend Award, but when she was notified, she thought the call was to ask her to retire from the company.
“I kind of like dropped the phone and then picked the phone up,” said Benson. “It was a complete shock.”
Along with attending events, Benson also takes time to meet with the film’s four generations of fans, who share personal stories about their love of Ariel and the influence of the movie on their lives.
“The impact of the film, the impact of the character, is overwhelming,” said Benson. “It is such a privilege to get to have this little, sneak peek into people's lives. That's what I enjoy. I enjoy hearing their stories about what the film means to them.”
Although Benson may have initially wanted to keep her role as Ariel a secret, she now feels blessed to have been a part of “The Little Mermaid.”
“My responsibility to represent the film, represent the character, it’s a big responsibility to me because I do want to keep the integrity and the character of Ariel going strong,” said Benson. “I’m just grateful that I got to come along for the journey and along for the ride.”