This year marks 30 years since Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” swam into theaters. And Jodi Benson, who voiced the movie’s redheaded heroine, says she still gets recognized for the role, thanks to her appearances at various Disney events and in the movie’s bonus features.
“I was a chaperone for our daughter, Delaney, at the Junior Theater Festival, and everywhere I went, kids would stop me, and parents would stop me, and they'd go, ‘Oh, my gosh. Do you know you look exactly like the voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson? Do people tell you that?’” she told TODAY. “I'm like, ‘Yes! That is so weird. Everybody says that to me!’”
Of course, once Benson begins singing “Part of Your World,” Ariel's signature song, they know it's her immediately. (Benson even sang some of her lyrics for us in the above video!)
Benson, now 57, said she’s had some particularly moving moments with young viewers and their families at Disney fan conventions.
“I love to hear where they were the first time they saw the movie, what they were wearing, what they were feeling, who they were with,” she said. “It connects them to this magical memory that they get to keep inside.”
However, she added, some fans’ stories are “quite difficult and painful to hear.”
“One little girl was a burn victim,” Benson recalled. “She was left in a hot tub by a guardian that did not take care of her. And she had to have full-body skin graft. And it's a torturous procedure. It's incredibly painful, from what the nurses had told me. And so this little girl would watch the movie and listen to my voice over and over again, because these sessions would take hours upon hours to regraft the skin that she had lost. And it brought her tremendous comfort. That just absolutely blew me away.”
Benson has also met children with autism who’ve learned how to speak from the movie and connected with Ariel’s loss of her voice.
“I have a lot of kids in wheelchairs that can connect with Ariel because of the loss of legs and gaining the legs,” she continued. “I feel so thankful and so grateful that this film, my voice, the song, can give them the joy or the comfort or the tools or the skills. There was one mother that I met whose son had never spoken. And when he watched the movie, he fell in love with it. He learned the dialect of Sebastian. He learned all of Ariel's lines. He knew the whole film backwards and forwards. So with all of those words he learned through the film, he was then able, with his mother and his speech therapist, to combine and to start to speak and build sentences.”
Looking back on her time making “The Little Mermaid,” Benson said her favorite moments were recording “Part of Your World” with the film’s late producer and lyricist, Howard Ashman, whom she’d previously worked with on the Broadway musical “Smile.”
“He really knew how to get everything out of me,” she said. “I kept oversinging the song like I was onstage with 1,500 people. And he's like, ‘Just less. Less, less, less.’ He goes, ‘I have an idea. Let's just turn out the lights, sit on a stool, put your head in your hands and just say the words.’ He was so incredibly brilliant, and we lost him way too soon. So every time I sing ‘Part of Your World,’ which is almost every weekend, I go back to that moment, and I remember exactly where I was when I recorded it.”
For Benson, her animated alter ego’s greatest quality is her tenacity.
“There's nothing impossible for her,” Benson said. “And that's who I am. I'm very tenacious. I will knock on a closed door until it slams literally in my face. So that's how we connect.”
A special 30th anniversary edition of “The Little Mermaid” with new bonus features will be released digitally on Feb. 12 and on Blu-ray on Feb. 26. Benson also reprises her role as Ariel in “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” released digitally and on Blu-Ray the same day.