All Ariel wanted to do was be part of your world, but 30 years after its 1989 debut, “The Little Mermaid” is a very different kind of animated touchstone.
In 2018, criticism of the song “Kiss the Girl” questioned whether its lyrics glossed over the concept of informed consent between romancing adults. That same year, celebrities such as Keira Knightley and Mindy Kaling called out the Disney movie for propagating the idea that giving up your voice for a man is a reasonable life decision. Like many of the princess films before and after it, “The Little Mermaid” has struggled to fit into an evolved cultural landscape that holds its children’s entertainment to higher standards.
Three decades after its initial release, Ariel herself is speaking out about the movie’s place in pop culture.
In a conversation with voice actress Jodi Benson, who’s celebrating the movie’s 30th anniversary with a press tour timed to its Blu-ray re-release this month, I asked the woman behind Ariel about the recent criticism and the legacy of “The Little Mermaid.”
“The previous princess for me [was 1959′s ‘Sleeping Beauty’], so to jump from ‘Sleeping Beauty’ to Ariel, you have a very large jump ... I think when you look back at 1989, [Ariel’s] tenacity, her motivation, her determination, her strength, her stubbornness ― she has a little bit of an edge to her — that’s quite a big jump coming from ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ But it’s not 2019 in 1989,” she said. “You kind of have to take every decade or every period of time in relation to where you are. When we’re talking about the Me Too movement, which is incredible, and I’m a huge supporter of that, it’s different than if we go back to 1989. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but it is different.”
With regard to the celebrities who don’t allow their children to watch “The Little Mermaid” today, she says she “totally” respects their opinion but relates the experience of seeing fans shun the movie to the time the Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney.
“For me, as a faith-based Christian, on one of my press tours... I got a lot of flak,” she explained. ”‘Why are you working for Disney?’”
Conservative Christian groups launched a boycott of Disney in the 1990s for including what they claimed was anti-family messaging. “The Little Mermaid” was singled out for the phallus-like image on the cover of the VHS tape (which Disney claims was unintentional) and an infamous scene in which a bishop appears to be aroused at the “Little Mermaid” wedding (I spoke to the animator of the bishop scene in 2015, who said the object in question is actually his knees, which you can see in other shots in the movie). The boycott came to an end in 2005.
Benson said frankly, “If you’re asking me to boycott my company... you don’t have to watch our movie, but there’s no need for you to explain to me why I can’t work for my company because I feel really good about it.”
Ultimately, Benson told me watching or not watching the movie is a personal choice. But if your position is to keep your kids from watching movies like “The Little Mermaid,” then she believes fans need to examine other behaviors as well.
“For some of these moms that have decided ‘I don’t want my child to see “The Little Mermaid” because I don’t want them to chase after a man,’ but you have to take the whole relationship of these families. What are they watching? Are they watching PG-13? Are they watching foul language? Are they watching maybe some questionable stuff that maybe 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds really shouldn’t be watching? Are they watching R-rated movies with their family? You can kind of look at it from both ways. What’s going to be worse? Do you want to watch ‘NCIS’ with your child or do you want to watch ‘The Little Mermaid’?”
Overall, the policy “doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense” to Benson, but she believes every parent has the right to do what they feel is best for their child. “I’m all for where we are now, believe me. But when I get a lot of flak about that, I just say, ‘Hey, please don’t worry. You don’t need to watch the movie. It’s OK.’”
I continued chatting with Benson about how she remembers “The Little Mermaid,” her secret princess texting thread, the unfortunate phenomenon of death threats online and more.
Speaking of flak about “The Little Mermaid,” do you get that on social media a lot?
Yeah, I get bashed. Oh, sure. Absolutely.
What’s that been like?
It’s always something. Again, you just have to roll with the punches. You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. Everybody has their opinion. Let’s face it ... this is what we’re dealing with with the cyberbully age. This is what we’re dealing with with the bashing age. I’m called names all the time. I just got a death threat the other night.
Oh, my gosh.
It’s crazy. People can be crazy. You have to just take it all and let it go and figure, you know what, this is an animated feature film. It’s a wonderful animated feature film. Let’s not just dig up everything else and get so crazy about it. You know what I mean? Just don’t watch it if you don’t feel good about it, but do you really need to kind of tell everybody else we’re going to boycott this now? I don’t know. There’s a lot more important things in life, I think, to take into consideration.
So what’s a positive you take from it when you look back on the movie?
I’m very proud of the film. I’m very proud of the character. I’m proud of the fact that our movie has touched ... generations of children, and it’s made an impact, and somehow, some way, it has a piece of their story and their heart. What I love to do as I travel around the world and meet anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people at a convention over the weekend, I want to hear their story. They like to tell me where they were the first time they saw it, what they were wearing, who they were with. They might break down and cry. They might just want to share the memory of, “It was my grandfather and I, we used to watch that movie together...” I’m so grateful to kind of leave that legacy ― that it’s mattered and it’s made a difference in people’s lives.
After 30 years, is there any question you still have about the movie?
I think, after all this time, I’ve pretty much investigated everything that I would need to know about “The Little Mermaid” myself. Sometimes I like to find out from the original staff what made them change Ariel’s hair from blond to red, because she was the first redheaded princess. I never really got the real story as to why that transition happened, except just to be innovative and have it be something original.
I’ve always wondered: Forks are just dinglehoppers to merpeople, so what do you think they eat with underwater?
I kind of feel like they use carved-out coral and seashells, so I would say some sort of like a conch that you could break into different pieces. I think they eat a lot with their fingers because you have kelp ... Of course they don’t eat seafood. They’re primarily vegetarian. I would say primarily with their hands or with some sort of shell.
Oh, so they are vegetarian?
I’m going to say vegetarian.
What would Marie Kondo do with Ariel’s hoarding situation?
Is it bad that I don’t know who that is? [Benson’s publicists chime in, reminding her about author and famous tidier Marie Kondo.] Oh, the woman that likes to say goodbye to things!
Yes, that’s the one.
I’m sure she would go into Ariel’s grotto and maybe try to organize and say what kind of value do you have on each of these items, but the thing for Ariel is each of these items represents part of her dream. I think as far as to become human and to reach outside of herself as to what she’s been. Maybe she’d have a great conversation with her to say, “Once I reach that dream, I think I might be able to let these go ....” For now, she needs to hold on to all her gadgets and gizmos aplenty.
You worked with a lot of the princesses in “Wreck-It Ralph 2 .” Do you have a secret Disney princess texting thread?
We do, yeah.
Actually, Jasmine [Linda Larkin], Ariel and Belle [Paige O’Hara], we’re really good friends. We do have a text thread with the three of us.
What do you talk about in the Disney princess texting thread?
We just check in with each other’s lives ― “Where are you?” Because we go on the road a lot with Comic-Con conventions. “How are you doing? How’s your husband? How’s this? And what’s going on?” We kind of keep in touch that way.
It is fun.
One great thing about “Wreck-It Ralph” is it pokes fun at some Disney tropes. Why do you think a lot of the princesses don’t have mothers?
It is kind of funny, isn’t it? I’m not exactly sure why we’ve kind of landed on the fact that most of these girls don’t have moms. I really don’t know what that’s all about, but it does make for a very funny joke in “Wreck-It Ralph,” the fact that they’ve kind of connected the dots with all of them saying, “Neither do we!” I’m not exactly sure why all those princesses [don’t have mothers], or why it’s not a dad, or why they don’t have both parents. I guess it gives you that opportunity in a musical to have that “I want” song, and something that’s missing from their life. I guess if they have perfect lives and they appear to be perfect, then this story might take a different turn, so I think there needs to be a little struggle here at the beginning so that you kind of root for the character all the way through.
Another thing I’ve always wondered: How do merpeople go to the bathroom?
I would think that there’s some kind of natural ecosystem. I would have to imagine that there’s got to be a different filtration system going on because it’s not going to be within the water where they are. That’s for sure. Let’s just assume it’s in some kind of other location with great filtration. That’s what I’m going to say.
When you look back on the controversy with the bishop and the VHS cover, what’s that like for you?
That one really made me laugh because I’m thinking, who buys a VHS looking for this kind of stuff? Who spends their time analyzing this kind of stuff that’s looking for inappropriate ... I mean, c’mon. Again, it’s an animated feature film with Disney, with people that just have way too much time on their hands. And you’re just thinking there are just so many more things that you could be putting your energy towards than analyzing a Disney animated feature film VHS cover or frame by frame of the last hand-painted, hand-drawn animated film. You could be focusing on the positive of it and just saying how incredible they hand-painted a billion bubbles, but you’re going to look at a scene and rewind it and look at it and rewind it ... you just need to get a life. You really do. Bless your heart, but you have to get a life.
Fan theories come up all the time about “The Little Mermaid.” Have you heard the one connecting “The Little Mermaid” and “Frozen” universes? People say the shipwreck in “Little Mermaid” could’ve been from Elsa and Anna’s parents in “Frozen.”
Ohhh, OK. I like that idea. I think that’s a great idea. I love that. I love how people kind of come up with these things. So that would make them sort of like relatives or associate friends of some sort?
Um, maybe friends? I would assume they all hang out.
OK, let’s go with that.
They’re all princesses.
They’re all princesses, and they’re in the same club, so, yeah, I think that’s a great idea. So the parents, they shipwreck and she swims around it. Yeah, OK, that sounds good. I’ll give a thumbs up on that one.
How does Ursula have nail polish under water?
It’s waterproof. You know you can’t take nail polish off unless you have acetone, so it stays on forever. She’d have to come to the surface to take it off. It has to have oxygen, I think, for the acetone to work.
She surfaces a few times, but not enough time to do her nails.
What is a fire, and why does it, what’s the word?
What’s the word again ... burn? [Laughs] That’s right. Well, she doesn’t have fire, and obviously she’s a bookworm, that’s why she and Belle are such good friends. She has no concept of what a fire is and what burn means, but she loves these words, and she loves anything to do with humans. She’s trying to become more like them and understand them more, as she’s reading literature and learning all these new words. I think it’s just in her heart and her dream and her destiny to reach outside of herself and see what’s on the surface.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.