Imagine if animated films were cast back in the 80s like they are today with many of the voice roles going to the industry’s biggest celebrities. One could argue the lead role in a major Disney animated film like 1989’s classic “The Little Mermaid” would never have gone to a first-time actress like Jodi Benson. Instead, we’d probably have heard a song like “Part of Your World” being sung by someone like Paula Abdul or Debbie Gibson.
The casting process behind animated films over the last two decades has definitely changed, but it’s a change Benson has embraced.
“When I started working on ‘The Little Mermaid,’ voiceover [acting] was not a very credible form of work,” Benson, 51, told me during an interview to promote the new Diamond Edition of “The Little Mermaid.” “It was not widely accepted or looked upon in a favorable fashion. To see the notoriety and respect now is incredible. I’m thrilled celebrities and superstars and all kinds of folks want to be involved in animation. That’s a great thing.”
During our interview, Benson, who has given voice to “The Little Mermaid’s” cute and inquisitive title character Ariel over the last 24 years and also voices Barbie in the “Toy Story” franchise, talked about how she views the Disney princess culture today and whether or not she thinks the Mouse House will ever make another princess-themed movie after they said 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog” would be their last.
“The Little Mermaid” Diamond Edition goes on sale Tuesday, Oct. 1.
“The Little Mermaid” will celebrate its 24th anniversary in November. Does it feel that long ago to you or can you remember it like it was yesterday?
(Laughs) I can remember it like it was yesterday. The concept of time is just impossible to fathom.
Does watching the movie still affect you in the same way it did the first time you saw it?
Yes, I’m very much looking forward to being a part of our New York premiere showing [of the Diamond Edition] and sitting there with my family and just living and enjoying the moment.
Do you think most celebrities are cast in animated films because they are the best choice for the character or because they are simply an established name and the studios are trying to cover a demographic?
My hope would be that [the studio] picked an actor or actress because they’re right to tell the story of the character, but I don’t know. The fact they have name value and notoriety, all the better. As long as they can get the job done, it’s a win-win situation.
I talked to Paige O’Hara (voice of Belle) back when the “Beauty and the Beast” Diamond Edition came out in 2010 and I still think my next question is a valid one to ask. The Disney princess culture is still extremely popular among little girls. I can’t go into a store without seeing images of Ariel, Belle and Cinderella sharing space on some kind of product, whether it’s clothing or toys or bed sheets. Do you think the Disney princess culture is a good thing for little girls to see? Should that be something they aspire to be?
You know, I have a 12-year-old daughter. I think the fairy-tale concept and the magic and the wonder and the beauty is awesome. I don’t necessarily see the negative aspects of it because I’m not looking at it through those kinds of glasses. I know I grew up with Cinderella. I grew up in a small town wanting something more and wanting something greater than where I was. Maybe I wanted to live outside of the box. I wanted to reach for the unattainable. I can really relate to Cinderella. So, there is something quite magical about the fairy tale concept for a little child. We’re not necessarily looking for the reality aspect. We have plenty of reality all around us. But for a child, when you sit down and read a fairy tale to them, there’s something quite special about that. I’ve only seen that in a positive light. My daughter and I don’t have a negative connotation with it. We see the princesses because they’re exciting and they create imagination. Each of the princesses has a certain passion and desire and dream they are reaching for. Of course, princesses have changed from the 60s up to 2013. Things change. That’s the beauty of it.
There was a really big change in 2009 when Disney introduced audiences to their first black princess character in “The Princess and the Frog.” After that movie, Disney announced it would be their last “princess-themed” movie. What did you think about that decision? Do you think it’s one Disney will stick to?
It would be very hard to say with certainty because things do change. A studio or a person in leadership can say anything, but guess what? They can change their mind and that’s OK. (Laughs) We can all make some kind of statement and then come back and say, “You know what? I’ve rethought it and [that decision] was for that season. We are going to tackle something new.” So, you never know. There may be other princesses around the corner. It would be very hard to tell what’s going to happen in the next decade. I don’t think the studio necessarily even knows. That’s the entertainment world. Things change all the time and we have to continue to roll with it.
What do you think of Disney releasing a new version of “Part of Your World” with Carly Rae Jepson singing the song?
Her version is along the lines of what [“The Little Mermaid” music producer] Howard Ashman would have done, which is to tell a story. When you hear the interpretation of it, it’s not focused on the notes or the song or the singing, it’s focused on telling the story. That’s what was really important to Howard. When I was recording “Part of Your World,” [Howard] didn’t necessarily choose the best musical takes. If you listen back to it and were to break it down, you would hear that some of the notes are not perfect. Some of them are not held. Some of them are completely spoken. That was the beauty of it. It wasn’t a song to be sung. It was a story to be told. That’s why I think this particular cover is unique.
You recently received the Disney Legend Award, which has gone to recipients as highly regarded as Jim Henson and Julie Andrews in the past. What is going on in your mind when you get a call like that?
When I got the call from Disney, I actually thought I was losing my job. At the time, they were doing some cleaning up in the Disney character voice department. My mind was not thinking about what the phone call was about. So, when I got the call to be a recipient of the award I was silent. I had to catch my breath because I thought I was being let go and retired as a voice. My mind had to flip and do a 180. (Laughs) I think the next thing I asked was, “Do you have to be dead to get this award?” It never crossed my mind I would get this award, ever! From that point on, it was very hard for me not to cry whenever I talked about it. (Emotional) I’m even starting to cry now talking about it! I was so overwhelmed and so touched. I felt so honored and completely undeserving to be quite honest with you. But it did give me the opportunity to stand up in front of a large group of people who are Disney enthusiasts and say thank you to all the folks that have made it possible for me to do what I do.