Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel, explains why The Little Mermaid is more feminist than you might think
When it comes to Disney movies, The Little Mermaid is hands-down one of our favorites. We know all the songs by heart and have fond memories of watching it on repeat when we were kids (and sometimes now). Well, it’s hard to believe, but The Little Mermaid came out 30 years ago. Feels like just yesterday you discovered it for the first time, right?
In honor of the film’s 30th anniversary, Disney is re-releasing The Little Mermaid from the Disney vault. It’ll be available digitally February 12th and on Blu-ray February 26th, so plan a mermaid-themed movie night accordingly. There are hours of bonus features, including sing-along mode and never-before-seen footage of the cast of The Little Mermaid inside the recording studio.
Intrigued? Here’s a sneak peek:
To celebrate all this mermaid-y goodness, we spoke with Jodi Benson—the original and only voice of Ariel—about the movie’s feminist message and what our favorite mermaid would be doing today.
HelloGiggles: You’ve been the voice of Ariel for 30 years. Back in 1989, did you think the movie and character would become as big as they are today?
Jodi Benson: Absolutely not. I had absolutely no clue whatsoever. I was doing a Broadway show called Smile with Howard Ashman and Marvin Hamlisch, and our show tragically closed after six weeks. Howard was working on The Little Mermaid already with Disney, and he felt so bad, he invited all the girls [from Smile] to come and audition for it. It was a Hey, I’m so sorry you lost your job kind of thing. I had never been behind a microphone before, and I thought, Oh, this is a really cool experience. How sweet of Howard to let us have this learning experience.
So much time had gone by—a year and a half after my first couple of auditions—that when I got the call from my agent, with a beeper and a pay phone and quarters in New York City, I had completely forgotten about it. She was like You know, Ariel. I’m like, What are you talking about? I’d put it out of my mind. When you’re doing Broadway, you’re thinking of theater; doing voiceover was not in my realm of consciousness. I didn’t even know what that actually meant.
What’s funny is the voice of Sebastian, Sam Wright—he and I were doing the same Broadway show together while we were working on [The Little Mermaid]. What are the odds of that?! And that was another horrible Broadway flop. We had no idea the film was going to be a success. I knew that animation was off the lot and I knew [The Little Mermaid] was kind of the last-ditch effort for [Disney]. But I didn’t have any concept that it was going to be the game-changer. We did the movie and went back to Broadway. Then, all of a sudden, it took a huge turn. It was not expected at all, but I think it makes it sweeter that way. Having a sweet surprise with no expectations made it even more precious.
HG: People on the internet like to argue about whether The Little Mermaid sends a positive message to young girls or not. Do you interpret the movie as feminist?
JB: I think everybody can have their opinion about everything. I know there are celebrities that have banned their children from watching it. You know, life is so short. I think we have to take into consideration that we [made the film] in 1989. We have to take into consideration that the previous princess film, Sleeping Beauty, [came out in] 1961. That’s a big leap. Now, we’re leaping to 2019. To expect an ’89 film to leap to 2019 as far as feminism goes, I think it’s asking a lot. I’m not defending it; my job is not to get in the middle of the debate. I think my job is to make people aware that we did the best film that we felt we could do with integrity and character.
We see a lot of wonderful qualities in Ariel in 1989. She’s tenacious, strong-willed, determined, and motivated. She dreams big and lives out of the box. Would it read in 2019? That’s what makes classics classic. Snow White is classic. Can our children relate to that? Maybe not. But it’s a classic animated film. I think it’s a matter of taking everything in its perspective. Everybody’s going to have their feeling. I forbid my children. We ban Disney. I’m like, Okay. Choose something you can watch that you feel really good about with your family.
HG: So many beloved stories from the ‘80s and ‘90s are getting the reboot treatment now. What do you think Ariel would be doing today, in 2019?
JB: I think she would still be a trailblazer. I do think she would still be living outside of the box, outside of the norm, and breaking the mold, so to speak. She’s incredibly tenacious and very strong-willed. I think she’d probably be continuing to push the envelope in some way.
HG: Do people ever recognize your voice out in the world?
JB: Yes! And with the evolution of technology, people recognize me for my face. They’ve connected the dots. I was at a convention two weeks ago with my daughter, as a chaperone, hiding out in the shadows. But you’ve got 6,000 high school students involved in musical theater and the performing arts. They know. I also got a lot of, Did you know you look exactly like Jodi Benson? And I said, You know what? I get that all the time. I did that all weekend and my daughter was cracking up. Then, I used the Popsugar Twinning app—my daughter set it up for me—and I came up with an 84% chance to match myself. 84%?! You’re kidding me! [Laughs.]
HG: What is it like to watch new generations fall in love with The Little Mermaid?
JB: I love that. I really do. It’s one of my favorite things about doing these re-releases. We’re in the vault every seven years, give or take; we’ve cycled around close to five times now. It is glorious for me. We do get a brand-new generation every time. Now, we have the whole intergenerational thing. We’ve got grandparents and great-grandparents watching it. We have four generations now that can sit down and do something together from age 1 to 99. It’s a fun thing you can do as a family, and that’s pretty tricky to find when you have a wide age range. I love the fact that we get to cycle around and be reintroduced to the next batch.