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Jodi Benson interview: 'Little Mermaid' star talks film's 25th, Blu-ray release

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Nearly 25 after the release of "The Little Mermaid" in theaters, the film's voice star, Jodi Benson, said she's having a blast -- make that splash -- celebrating the classic animated movie musical.

"It's just been an incredible journey, and we're so excited for the re-release because it gives us a chance to introduce it to a whole new group of kids," Benson told me in a recent interview. "It's a beautiful story, has great music and great hand-drawn animation. The whole combination of things made for a perfect experience."

The film, new this week on home video (Walt Disney Home Entertainment), has a special bonus this time in that one of the Blu-ray versions is in 3D. Benson does the speaking and singing voice of Ariel, a young mermaid coming into her own under the sea who makes a deal with a villainous sea witch as a way to meet a human prince on the land above.

Benson's time as the Little Mermaid has been unique in that addition to the film, she's voiced the character over the years for subsequent television projects and Disney video releases. Most actors are lucky to play a character once, much less have the chance to spread out the experience over a quarter century -- and better yet, she's been able to voice Barbie for more than one of Disney-Pixar's "Toy Story" projects.

"It's a huge part of my life that is ongoing and it's not done. I was just in the studio doing Ariel's voice a couple days ago," Benson said with a laugh. "Ariel is alive and well, as is Barbie. These characters just keep going on. Because they are voiceovers, these characters have longevity. You can get an incredible journey for a lifetime. It's an amazing gift."

Disney is getting a jump on the film's 25th anniversary, which will be in 2014 since the film first came out in theaters in 1989. But Benson's involvement actually began much earlier than that since animation projects -- especially the hand-drawn ones -- take years to produce.

"My hire date was August '85-ish, and we started the next spring into summer," recalled Benson, who turns 52 next week. "It was about two-and-a-half years from the voice recording to the final production because they animate after the voices are established. Because the film was hand-painted and hand-drawn, it was a little bit of a different process."

Part of that world
One of the thrills on the production for Benson was recording the iconic song "Part of Your World," with the music written by Alan Menken and lyrics by the Howard Ashman. On the flip side, Benson said the re-release of the film is somewhat bittersweet in that Ashman, who died in 1991 at age 40, is not around to celebrate it.

"For Alan and me, and probably for the rest of the cast, Howard was the huge reason that any of us were involved," Benson said. "He was our director, producer, choreographer and lyricist for 'Smile' on Broadway, and invited all the girls in the cast to audition for 'The Little Mermaid.' Plus, he was incredibly involved in getting Alan on board with Disney. For all of us, he is the one main link that brought us into the project."

The bonus footage on "The Little Mermaid" release includes a segment where we see Benson and her family take in the "Under the Sea -- Journey of the Little Mermaid" attraction at Walt Disney World's Animation resort in Orlando, Fla. Benson said after all this time, she can't help but get a surreal feeling knowing she played an integral part in bringing the character to life.

"I was just talking with a couple friends who rode the ride with us recently that it's such an overwhelming feeling to go through it -- to just stop and realize all these years ago this incredible surprise came to me and how God has planned the whole thing," Benson said. "It's just amazing. I never could have dreamt in million years that this is where I would be. I'm just so thankful."

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