By Rick Bentley The Fresno Bee
The impetuous Sofia, the latest princess to join Disney royalty through her Disney Channel series “Sofia the First,” has always been able to turn to the other members of the animated royal court in times of trouble.
In the Sunday prime-time special, “Sofia the First: The Floating Palace,” she gets assistance from “The Little Mermaid’s” Princess Ariel when a family vacation goes bad.
Jodi Benson, whose wondrous vocal tones first gave voice to Ariel in the 1989 feature film “The Little Mermaid,” again speaks and sings for the character whose curiosity about life is as big as the sea.
It didn’t take any preparation for Benson to find Ariel’s voice again.
“It’s embedded in my vocal chords,” Benson said.
Benson’s latest turn as Ariel is for the new undersea adventure in which Sofia is magically transformed into a mermaid. Along with a special appearance by Princess Ariel, the special introduces Oona, a young mermaid voiced by Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”).
It’s helped that Benson has voiced Ariel for toys, video games and amusement park rides. Unless the product is an illegal knockoff, it’s Benson who has provided all of the vocals.
Back when she did the original recordings, Benson had no idea Ariel would be a lifelong project. When Disney releases an animated film now, all of the actors do interviews to promote the movie.
The plan with “The Little Mermaid” had been to stay true to what Walt Disney had done with his earlier animated movies: The voice talents got on-screen credit but did little promotion. The idea was to protect the magic that was going on behind the scenes.
Benson was shocked when she was told that she would be going on a 21-city tour — for 22 days — to talk about her voice work in “The Little Mermaid.” She’s continued to talk about the role for a quarter of a century, long enough to have multiple generations of fans.
The diamond edition of “The Little Mermaid” was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 1.
Sofia has a long way to go to match that record, but she shows signs that there could be a diamond edition in her life. “Sofia the First” is the top-rated cable series with kids 2 to 5 and girls 2 to 5, plus the No. 1 preschool cable TV series in total viewers, and with women 18 to 49.
Benson was well aware of Sofia before she stepped into the animation booth.
“‘Sofia’ is a sweet story about the values of loyalty and honesty, what it’s like to be a true friend,” Benson said. She’s excited to have the new princess follow in her flippers.
The Sofia special also gives Benson a chance to sing a tune written by John Kavanaugh, who serves as the songwriter / music director, and composer Kevin Kliesch.
Benson has known Kavanaugh for years and was certain that he would create a tune for Ariel that was in line with the music composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman for the original film.
From the film to “Sofia,” Benson calls getting to voice Ariel a “gift from God.” She had been working exclusively on Broadway before going in for the “Little Mermaid” audition, and it was the first time she had ever been behind a microphone.
She not only landed the role that would define her career, she became part of the Disney family. She is also the voice of Barbie in the “Toy Story” productions.
She’s proud to be part of a company that is so invested in being family friendly.
In connection with the new Sofia special, DisneyJunior.com/Sofia has launched “Sofia the First: Mermaid Princess,” a game in which players help Sofia rescue Oona from the clutches of the sea monster. The site also features “Sofia’s Royal Catch &Match,” an online activity based on the classic card game “Go Fish.”
“Sofia the First: The Floating Palace” airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on the Disney Channel.