In 1986, actress Jodi Benson was living her dream. She was the lead in a Broadway musical. The show was called SMILE, and the director/writer was the legendary Howard Ashman. The play was highly anticipated, and the cast and crew felt it was gonna be a hit.
Sadly the critics did not agree and SMILE only lasted for 48 performances. Ashman, probably as a sense of obligation, had the cast audition for his newest project, an animated musical for the Walt Disney company. Having never done voiceover, Jodi Benson felt her chances of getting any role in the animated was slim. But nevertheless, she did audition….and she got the lead.
The role was Ariel, the mermaid princess. The film was The Little Mermaid.
Disney is celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Little Mermaid, and Screen Rant got the chance to interview Benson. We look back on the film that changed her life, what the perception of animated movies were 30 years ago and to find out what would have been the biggest mistake concerning the making of the film.
Screen Rant: So first thing I just I feel like I'm going to miss my opportunity to not bring this up me, The Little Mermaid is one of me and my sister's favorite movies of all time while we were growing up. I will always have this huge connection to the film personally because I will always associate this movie with my relationship with my sister. So I just want to let you know that this particular film means a lot to me concerning my relationship with me and my sister.
Jodi Benson: That’s so awesome. I’m glad you did, I just said earlier in a Q and A I did with Kira, a head of animation for Ralph Breaks the Internet is that one of the greatest things that I get to be a part of as I travel around the world and meet wonderful mermaid fans, many fans on the weekend is that I get to hear their story. And I love to hear the story of the first time they saw the film or the relationship that it connects to.
Now some of the memories that they recall are not so great, and some are fantastic, but the fact that is that it does stir up, I mean it is a powerful thing when you can see a movie and recall and as if it was yesterday ,and like you said, it’s an automatic connection for you and your sister so I just really appreciate you sharing that story with me. That means a lot.
Screen Rant: Thank you! So my first question is, I kind of want to go back when you first got to the role. I've always been fascinated by this part, you even mentioned today in the interview with Kira, is that animation wasn't really considered a great job back then. Do you want to elaborate on that a little bit more? I mean did you watch Disney movies growing up…?
Jodi Benson: OH YES I DID! It was a big deal to me! I grew up as a Cinderella girl, and Disney was everything. Our family, we went one time to Walt Disney World, that was...oh my goodness...1971...and it was a huge deal. So when I got the job I was super excited because I’m like...not that anyone was gonna know me because I knew know one would know me, but just to be part of Disney I thought this was incredible, this was going to be amazing.
And then when I started telling people they were like…
”Oh you’re doing a cartoon?”
And I was like, “...yeah? Well it’s an animated feature film. It’s not a 26 minute cartoon.”
“But you’re not in the movie? We’re not gonna see you?”
I’m like, “No it’s called a Voice over.”
And the second you said “Voice over”, that and especially in New York City cuz they could be a little bit snobby about Broadway vs Television vs Feature Film, maybe not now but back then they were. So New York people were like “Ooooooh. Geeez.” That meant your career was done, you’re at the back half of your career. If you are not on a Broadway show you know, eight shows a week and you’re doing voice over it’s just...yeah...it wasn’t good. It wasn’t a good thing. I just stopped talking about it. When I fly back and forth, I would just say “ Oh I’m working on a project.” So I just stopped telling everybody. And then all of a sudden the movie comes out and of course they decide to advertise me and other cast members. They started to connect the dots...then they were like..
“Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you tell us about this really great thing?”
“Yeah, well I did but you guys just kind of made fun of me. You know like...it was this really rotten job. (Laughs)”
Again that’s 1985 and '86 so it was not, I don’t think you have the celebrities like you do now. Everybody and their brother doing voice over or doing animated. It was a different time back then.
Screen Rant: I wanted to know what was the very first song you learn for the film?
Jodi Benson: "Part of your World." I was given a cassette tape as were all the people auditioning. The cassette was a rough of Alan (Menken) at the piano and Howard (Ashman) singing “Part of your World.” And his rendition of it is absolute perfection.
So the smart thing to do as an actor is when a brilliant person hands you something...you imitate them. And that’s what I did. I imitated him. I imitated his breathing I imitated his phrasing I imitated his intonation and his volume of how he delivered a certain line. Yeah, it’s really amazing.
Screen Rant: Is there any songs from the movie that you can still up top your head is it "Part of your World" or are their any other songs you know still to this day?
Jodi Benson: It’s just "Part of your World" 'cause Ariel loses her voice for the rest of the film (LAUGHS) So she just does "Part of your World" and she does the reprise and that's all she wrote. So I just get to sing the one song, the one iconic song that I’m very grateful for. And I’m grateful that it wasn’t cut from the film like it was originally gonna to be cut from the film otherwise I wouldn’t really have a song.
Screen Rant: They were going to cut the song at one point?!
Jodi Benson: Yes, there were screeners, test market screeners with children and Jeffrey Katzenberg was there, he was head of animation at the time. And when children were dropping their popcorn buckets and kind of running up and down the theater pathway they appeared to be restless to him. During the 3 mins and 43 seconds of the song. And so he did a test market on that and he came up with the plan that we need to cut the song.
And Howard said, “Over my dead body. You’re not cutting the ‘I Want’ song of the entire film. You have to have a ‘I want’ song. It’s what you have to have in the beginning of the film otherwise you’re not gonna care about her. They’re not gonna fall in love with her and they are not gonna root for her until the very end of the film.”
And he’ll (Jeffrey Katzenberg) tell you and I think I’m sure it’s in quotes, that would have been his greatest mistake in history. (LAUGHS) Thankfully he was wise enough to listen to Howard and the other powers that be and not believe a test market with some 3 and 4 year old kids.
Screen Rant: Ok, one quick question. Really really quick. What do you think is the more fun word to say...dinglehopper or snarfblat?
Jodi Benson: (LAUGHS) Well snarfblat is very hard to say but dinglehopper is near and dear to me heart. Absolutely dinglehopper all the way. Everytime we play with that, every kid plays with that. Every adult plays with that. When we go to Walt Disney World I have to see Ariel in her grotto every trip and she pulls out her dinglehopper and she combs my hair and I comb her hair and we take a picture with it. It’s very cheesy but I do it everytime I go which last year which was ten times last year.
Screen Rant: That's amazing.
Jodi Benson: But….Snarfblat is a lot more fun to say. (Laughs)
Screen Rant: But a very strong connection to dinglehooper.
Jodi Benson: Very strong connection with the dinglehopper. Yes yes, absolutely my favorite.
Screen Rant: Thank you so much it was a pleasure talking to you.
Jodi Benson: So nice to talk to you too Justin, and by the way my son is a big big fan of Screen Rant. He’s a filmmaker here in Atlanta.
Screen Rant: Thank you! Tell him thank you that’s awesome!
Jodi Benson: He was most impressed. I told him “Honey I’m gonna be working five minutes from you, do you wanna stop over?”
He was like “Well I have class” and he had a special lunch date lunch date with my husband with his dad today. He hasn’t seen him in a couple of weeks. He looked at my list for what I was doing today and he was like “OH! You’re talking to Screen Rant? Oh, wow, that’s cool. That’s big mom, that’s big. So anyways, you have kudos from an up and coming filmmaker.
Screen Rant: That's awesome.Well we’ll look forward to seeing his work for sure when he gets going in his career.
Jodi Benson: I told him to remember me when you go get your Oscar and when you stand up on stage, don’t forget your old mom.
Disney's The Little Mermaid 30th Anniversary edition is now out on digital and comes to 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD on February 26.