This is a big summer for me, because my two tippy-top favorite Disney girls, Ariel and Tink (despite the fact that I really go for the Alice and Wendy performers the most at the theme parks), are getting very special DVD releases; direct-to-video prequels, to be specific. The first is out now, sometimes referred to as The Little Mermaid 3, but released as "The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning".
The plot of this all new, thankfully traditionally animated feature (unlike the upcoming Tinker Bell CGI movie, though that one still looks good), involves King Triton's tragic loss of Ariel's mother, Queen Athena (And yes, we do see Athena in the film, and she looks more like Ariel than one would probably have imagined), and the way the entire kingdom is soon forced to suffer as he does. King Triton places a ban on all music in the kingdom of Atlantica, because music reminds him of his lost beloved, and this results in ten years of boredom and misery for Triton's subjects and his own seven lovely daughters. After that flashback, narrated by Sebastian the crab, we catch up with Triton and his family sometime during Ariel's fifteenth year, when an encounter with a new fish friend named Flounder leads her to discover a secret, underground club in which music is played and celebrated nightly. Ariel's curious and excitable sisters soon join her on her visits to the secret club, and this is their undoing. For their governess, the scheming Marina Del Ray, is out to get Sebastian's job, and that means she's out to get Sebastian, who just happens to be the illegal, musical nightclub proprietor and head entertainer. It's a rather simple plot about how music was brought back to the kingdom of Atlantica, which isn't a spoiler if you've seen the original film at all, with a mild villain thrown in for a little danger. Marina does turn out to be a threat, but the real hurdle for the heroes in the film is Triton and his anti-music agenda.
"The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning" is definitely a film that walks the line of great and disappointing probably more than any Disney sequel. It's beautifully animated for the most part, with my only real complaint being a few scenes of some significant music box figures done in CGI that looks unfinished in close-ups. The plot is not too shabby, but probably too simple to meet most adult viewers' hopes and expectations (yes, there are tons of adult Disney fanatics out there, like myself). Disney tends to aim its direct-to-video films more squarely at kids than its usually MUCH better bigscreen outings or even its animated TV shows. I consider this to be part of the problem with Disney's line of direct to video releases. Also, the villain of a Disney film is often the best aspect for most folks, and in this case, Sally Field's Marina Del Ray is a good character played beautifully, but not all that important as a villain and certainly not very imposing. She has a creepy pack of electric eels to increase her danger quotient though. Of course, she also has a comedic sidekick, a manatee named Benjamin (who seems to not require much oxygen), who I found a bit annoying really but others seem to enjoy.
The biggest problem with the story and the film itself though, for hardcore Little Mermaid fans anyway, is probably that it is hard to buy as a precursor to the original, classic Disney masterpiece. And don't get me started on how annoying it is that the direct-to-video prequel and sequel present Ariel's life as having 10 years of misery and deprivation in her childhood years and ten years of misery and deprivation at the start of her marriage. I know Anderson's mermaid was a tragic character, but this is the most internationally beloved Disney princess of them all! That's beside the point though. As I was saying, it is a bit hard to buy these events as having led up to the original film, and I consider the Disney animated TV series, which I suppose is no longer considered canon (though it is to me), to be a much better prequelization. Something that increases that feeling is the problem "Ariel's Beginning" had with character continuity. First, there's the issue of voices, most noticeably, King Triton's (though Ariel's sisters sound totally different from in the theatrical film too). Jim Cummings has taken over as the voice of King Triton after years of Kenneth Mars playing the role. Now, Jim Cummings is a Disney treasure, but he doesn't sound like Triton much at all, and it just doesn't work for me. In fact, of the two biggest complaints I've read about the characterizations in "Ariel's Beginning", that's one of them. The other is the character of Flounder. He is a completely different character in this film. Flounder, the cowardly "guppy" of the classic film and TV series, is presented here as a Baloo/King Louie wannabe with a rebellious streak. The saddest part is that the one scene in which he really acts just like the original Flounder can be found in the deleted scenes section.
But let's talk about chicks, man. Specifically, Ariel, the girl of my dreams, and her six hottie sisters. Ariel is voiced perfectly here by her original voice actress, Jodi Benson, whose voice is still straight from Heaven. And, thankfully, Ariel is totally in character in this movie. Her sisters finally get some decent screen time too, and I gotta tell ya, the exposure we get to Ariel's sisters here is one of the biggest strong points of "Ariel's Beginning". I came away from it absolutely adoring Arista.
Not a hot female, but also reprising his role perfectly here is the great Samuel E. Wright, who voices Sebastian the crab. Mr. Wright actually performs the most memorable song in the film, which unfortunately is not one of the new, original songs written for the film, but instead is the well-known "Jump in the Line". This song is performed twice in the film in two different ways, and it's the best musical aspect aside from Ariel singing "I Remember". Sadly, the original songs here are not very memorable. This is usually a problem with direct-to-video animated films that attempt to be musicals, and a prime example of a mistake frequently made is the villain's song here, "Just One Mistake", which attempts to emulate the song sang by Ursula in the first film but instead is just all over the place and fails to establish a catchy tune.
So, when all is said and done, "Ariel's Beginning" is a visually impressive, mildly entertaining new story about Ariel and her friends that unfortunately holds to very little character/story continuity and feels more like it takes place in a parallel universe rather than in the same one as the original film (and totally, disappointingly disregards the TV series; I hate it when they do that!). Honestly, though I still need to rewatch and review it (haven't seen it in a while), I'd be just as comfortable tossing "The Little Mermaid 2" into that parallel universe too. I don't care to see Ariel having another 10 years of sadness, nor do I care to see her married to anyone other than me, or with a kid I didn't sire. *ahem*
Folks who simply don't feel we need new stories about the Disney princesses shouldn't bother to watch or review this film, but for those of us who do, we would love to see more if they had this level of visual quality but were just written better. Of course, it is said that this is to be the last of the Disney direct-to-video prequels and sequels (we'll see about that), the Tink movie being more of a Fairy franchise thing like the Barbie DVDs, but the real problem was never the concept of making such films, it was just how much work, heart, talent, and of course money was put into them. "Bambi 2", despite the uninspired title, remains the best of the Disney animated sequels (aside from "Rescuers Down Under", of course) and is really an outstanding film with only the flaw of some all-too-modern sounding songs. "Ariel's Beginning" was one of the ones that came close to that level. Visually, it is beautiful. As a stand alone film, it's pretty good/enjoyable. Good enough for me to give it four stars. It just disregards too much of what has already been established as part of Ariel's universe, and writing down for a younger audience is never really a good thing. If they didn't have to do it for the bigscreen films, why do it for the direct-to-video ones? Is it worth a purchase though? Yes, unless you just hate Disney sequels. It's a good film that looks gorgeous on DVD (it's anamorphic widescreen, by the way). The continuity issues may make you mad, they may not, but it's a good film, and truly the real highlight is getting to know Ariel's sisters better. The DVD includes a couple of deleted scenes, song selections, a short behind-the-scenes featurette with the director, Peggy Holmes, a personality match game (I got Ariel, no cheating!) that is part of a bigger interactive experience that teaches you more about Ariel and her sisters by letting you explore their individual vanities, and the best extra is a behind the scenes look at the new "The Little Mermaid" Broadway musical, which I'm DYING to see. A couple of the sisters in that one are cuties too. If you're a fan of Ariel the Little Mermaid, yeah, it's a must purchase. I just so badly wish that Disney's "The Little Mermaid" TV series would get a complete DVD release too.