Friday, November 14, 1997

Part of their world

FILM:

The little mermaid takes the big screen for a whole new
generation of movie-goersBy Stephanie Sheh

Daily Bruin Senior Staff

Jodi Benson arrives at the Four Seasons Hotel, dressed neatly in
a white blouse and red blazer, to share some memories. Her clear,
crisp voice fills the large carpeted room, a voice that brought to
life a 16-year-old mermaid eight years ago.

"I actually created the voice in the ladies’ room right before I
went into the audition," Benson recalls. Today, "The Little
Mermaid" is back on the big screen for a limited two week
engagement. "They had this lounge outside the ladies’ room and I
just looked in the mirror and I kind of read through it and
thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll try this voice.’"

Benson beat out hundreds of contenders for the role of Ariel
with just that voice. When casting for the free-spirited heroine,
the filmmakers did not want to see any of the actress’ faces nor
did they want to know any of their previous credits. Casting
decisions were based on demo tapes that were submitted. This is in
stark contrast to the star-studded animated pictures that Disney
has produced since.

Benson says that writing and directing team Ron Clements and
John Musker told her, "We knew when we heard it that was what we
wanted, but we didn’t know what we wanted until we heard it."

It took Clements and Musker a long time to decide on Ariel’s
voice. In fact, Benson didn’t even find out she got the role until
approximately a year later.

"Then I didn’t remember it," Benson admits. "So I said, ‘Do you
have my tape? ‘Cause I don’t remember what I did.’"

This was Benson’s first time doing any type of character voice
work, but with her extensive musical theater background it’s no
great surprise that she would lend her voice to an animated
classic.

"I think when I was a kid, you pretend to be other characters,"
Benson says. "I would imitate people like Barbra Streisand. They
were like huge idols for me, so I would pretend to sing like
them."

Since "Mermaid" Benson has voiced characters for several
animated television series including "The Little Mermaid," "Pirates
of Dark Water" and "P.J. Sparkles." Although working in a recording
studio is no longer new to Benson, she’s still finds it fun.

"The way I can describe it is that you’re led into a room of
toys. You are a child (and they’re) just like ‘OK, go and have fun
for the next two hours,’" Benson says. "You are completely
uninhibited. The things you do in there you would never do in
public. You wouldn’t want people to see the faces you make and then
what you do with your body. So it’s kind of like free playtime.

"And it’s really amazing that you get paid to do it," Benson
continues. "But that’s the funny thing I suppose. I still am like,
‘You’re going to pay me to go in there and be goofy?’"

Although Benson had a lot of fun working on "The Little
Mermaid," it was challenging to only be able to use her voice to
express the necessary emotions.

She explains, "You think you’ve nailed something dead on and
you’re sobbing and you’re crying and you’re right there in the
moment. And then Ron and John will push the button and they’ll say,
‘It’s really great but when we close our eyes, it’s not the right
thing. We’re not getting it.’ And you’re like, ‘Man, what more can
I do?’"

Benson did receive a sketch and a tape recording of one of the
songs to aid in her creating the character. The tape had the late
lyricist Howard Ashman singing "Part of Your World." Benson says
that his interpretation was so perfect that she mimicked every
nuance. Ashman also made tapes of other characters’ songs.

"You know Pat Carroll (Ursula) would be the first to say that he
played a much better Ursula than she could ever imagine to touch
on," Benson says. "He really wanted to be all these characters.
He’s just a visionary in that way. He’s really such a creative
person. It’s just unfortunate that he’s not here, to be able to
enjoy the (re-release)."

Toward the end of the two-week run of the film’s run, Disney
will release the Robin Williams film "Flubber," in which Benson’s
voice makes an appearance.

Benson says that she had been a long admirer of "Flubber"
producer and screenwriter John Hughes ("Breakfast Club," "Sixteen
Candles"). When got to meet him, she was terrified and
intimidated.

"He put me at ease the first minute I walked in, though," Benson
recalls. "He said, ‘I was looking for this character for quite some
time. I watched "The Little Mermaid," turned off the screen, just
listened to your voice and said, "That’s Weebo." So that’s why
you’re here. So let’s go.’"

Voicing Weebo, Williams’ flying personal computer, was an
experience vastly different from the way Benson was used to
working. For "The Little Mermaid," she rehearsed with other actors
and the animators didn’t start sketching until all the lines had
been recorded. With Weebo, it was almost the complete opposite.

"I just walked in the sound studio with the screen and they
turned on the mic and John Hughes says, ‘Start talking to Robin.
Just talk to him,’" Benson says. "I said, ‘Do I have lines?’ ‘You
will improvise.’

"I just started talking back to Robin and filling in, playing
off of his creation, genius, his comic timing. And then John Hughes
developed a script from my character."

The actress is excited about seeing "Flubber" because her voice
was manipulated to sound like it came out of a speaker. She is
equally excited to see Ariel on the big screen again.

"I think the idea is to remember where you were the first time
you saw the movie," Benson says. "So I’m looking forward to
remembering the first time I saw it in the screening room and white
knuckling the chair, watching it and just going, ‘Oh my gosh! This
movie’s amazing!’"

To veteran actor and comedian Buddy Hackett ("Music Man," "The
Love Bug") the re-release means something a bit different.

"I want the people to enjoy it," says Hackett, who provided the
voice of Scuttle the sea gull. "There’ll be a whole generation of
people who haven’t seen ‘The Little Mermaid.’ I want them to go and
enjoy it, but then I want them to go buy the tapes. And I want them
to rent it, because I get a few cents (from it).

"You people, if you are going to be reading this stuff you got
to go out and do it, because they’re coming to take the house,"
Hackett jokes. "Last week they took the lawn. And if you don’t buy
enough tapes they’re going to come and take my house away. I …
have a lot of pussy cats that live in the house with us and they
don’t understand about banking and foreclosing."

Joking aside though, both actors are excited to see the
audience’s reaction to Ariel’s return to the screen.

"There’s a lot of children around my family that have been born
in the last seven years who have never seen it," Benson explains.
"So I’ve had to sort of make reservations. I’m sort of their
take-out mermaid to go to the movies with them. And just to watch
it and kind of look at me and then look up that the screen, I’m
really looking forward to it."

FILM: "The LIttle Mermaid" opens today. Come to Kerckhoff 118 to
pick up free posters and pins while they last.

Disney Enterprises

(Above) Ariel (Jodi Benson) and Flounder (Jason Marin) eagerly
listen as Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), shares some misinformation about
objects from the human world. (Below) The denizens of the deep pull
out all the stops for their biggest musical number.