LOS ANGELES—"The Little Mermaid," re-released on a special edition DVD, became an instant family classic when it first hit theaters in 1989, and continues to demonstrate an enduring appeal, which actress Jodi Benson attributes to many factors.
"I think [it's because it's] a classic fairy tale, the first one for our studio since 'Sleeping Beauty' in '61," comments Benson, who provided the voice of the title character. "And it's a great story in and of itself, but then to add the music to it, you know, to really make it like a Broadway musical, is what makes it so magical."
"It's got a wonderful innocence about Ariel," says Menken. "As a father, I look at it as a story of a father giving his daughter away, or allowing her her independence. It's about a young woman who wants her independence and dreams of going to this other world. It's really like a rite of passage.
"It's a very heartfelt musical, a genuine musical," he adds. "It's a score that is very guileless. And it's very heartfelt in Ariel's song ['Part of Your World'] and the reprise of the song. I think it reflects the best of the Disney animated musicals, and it also brought the contemporary musical into a marriage with Disney animation."
Although Benson's childhood dreams revolved becoming an actress, not a mermaid, when the opportunity came to audition for the roles, she somehow tapped into her inner mermaid without any prompting.
"What I did is I went to the restroom at the rehearsal studio and I started talking into the mirror of what I thought she would sound like," she explains. "And I ran back in, and they had a reel to reel tape and just laid it down on that -- just put what I thought she sounded like. And [directors Ron Clements and John Musker] will tell you, 'We didn't know what we wanted till we heard it. Then we heard it, then we wanted it.' So I think it was just meant to be."
At that point, both Menken and Ashman had already known Benson for several years from her work on Broadway as a chorus girl.
"Jodi has one of those voices -- if you're going to get technical about it -- she's not a pure soprano," Menken observes. "She's got this wonderful mixed belt, which just floats, and was perfect for Ariel."
While playing Ariel changed Benson's life and boosted her career, Menken's time on the film helped change the face of the Oscars. After winning those first two Academy awards, the composer went on to win six more for "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "Pocahontas." Despite the numerous other jobs that the two have had since "Mermaid," both credit Ashman for the shape of their success, even though he died in 1991 from AIDS.
Ashman was the one who convinced Menken to try his hand at scoring, and guided Benson how to perform her songs. In the DVD's "Behind the Scenes" featurette, archival footage shows Ashman standing next to the actress in the recording booth, feeding her the lines for "Part of Your World."
"[He did] everything -- every single line of every single character he has said, either on a tape or to your face," says Benson. "And every song, he's played all the characters. So the renditions of what he can do is just really amazing. So we all just basically copied him. Like I said, he just knew it better than anybody else."
With the passion and talent behind it, "Mermaid" seems like it was always destined to be a hit, but at the time it was made, the filmmakers and performers didn't expect it to become such a phenomenon.
"We had no idea, absolutely no idea whatsoever," reflects Benson. "It was just a complete blessing and gift. The reaction of the way it was received just took us all by storm. We just couldn't believe it. People just kind of really connect with this particular character. I've traveled all over the world and met children all over, and just to hear how this movie affects them in different ways is really precious, very precious."
"The Little Mermaid" 2-disc Platinum Edition hits stores on Tuesday, Oct. 3.