"The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning" doesn't have the warm vitality of "The Little Mermaid," and the songs aren't nearly as memorable. But the animation, while obviously cheaper, is as vibrant as ever, and in the world of Disney direct-to-video sequels, one out of three ain't bad.
Actually, as the title suggests, "Ariel's Beginning" isn't a sequel to Disney's modern classic, but a prequel, revealing an early adventure of the undersea princess. (There's no telling where this fits in with the 1992 "Little Mermaid" TV series, itself a prequel, but it doesn't really matter here.) The story opens when Ariel is just a little girl, her parents happy rulers of Atlantica. But Disney can't go a year without killing off a cartoon mom, so pretty soon the queen is killed when a pirate ship crashes. (Don't worry, parents: it's delicately handled off-screen.)
Oddly, this is the last we'll see of the pirates, who offer no other importance to the story. Instead, we watch as King Triton (voiced by Jim Cummings), heartbroken over the loss of his dear wife and desperate to hide himself from the thing that will remind him most of her, decrees that music is banned from the kingdom.
Jump ahead a few years. Ariel (Jodi Benton, reprising her 1989 role) is a rebellious teen, the most problematic of the king's seven daughters. The conniving Marina Del Ray (Sally Field!) - a sort of minor league Ursula - is the princess' nanny, a job she loathes. She'd rather kick our old crustacean pal Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) out of the kingdom and take over as Triton's attaché. At Marina's side is Benjamin (Jeff Bennett), a soft-spoken manatee who's way too friendly to be a villainess' henchman.
As for Ariel, she sneaks out one night, meets our favorite fish pal Flounder (Parker Goris), and discovers an underground nightclub where music thrives, a sort of speakeasy where tunes are the vice of choice. A hip calypso/jazz band tears up the joint, and surprise: Sebastian's the lead singer! Ariel informs her sisters, who also want to thrill to the music. Which is, for a Disney cartoon, quite subversive in its own little way, what with girls sneaking off to be seduced by illicit thrills - especially since we've seen the original movie and know Triton will eventually allow music back in the kingdom, meaning the girls are right to dare to stick it to the man.
The actual plot is quite thin: the girls get busted, Ariel and Sebastian run away, Marina gets power mad, and so on. What a movie like this needs, then, is a collection of great songs to keep pushing us through the so-so story. Unfortunately, what we get instead is a series of bland originals (for the life of me, I can't remember how a single one goes, let alone leave the movie humming); the only real keeper here is a cover version of the old school calypso favorite "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)," which is peppy and fun, even if the movie repeats it throughout the feature, as if to dilute its kicky glory.
Screenwriter Robert Reece previously worked on "Cinderella III," while fellow scripter Evan Spiliotopoulos helped write "The Lion King 1½." For all their flaws, both those films delivered a nice amount of in-joke play, and that sense of for-the-fans fun repeats here. "Ariel's Beginning" works best when it lets loose with the winking humor, as in one giddy segment where Marina struts her stuff, allowing the filmmakers to parody an iconic shot from "The Little Mermaid." This sort of knowing silliness is much welcome, and it rewards the intelligence of kids who will thrill to the chance to spot the references. Better still, first-time director Peggy Holmes has a knack for quick-paced physical comedy, as she fills the screen with mugging characters, appealing visuals, and a nice, steady flow.
But that goofiness often gets buried too often underneath a blah story that's much too run-of-the-mill to allow the emotional oomph of the characters' plights to truly impact. Triton's misery is less about character and more about plot, which is fine enough if you just want to make a fluffy piece of video shelf filler to rake in a few bucks until the next DTV project rolls around, but not enough if you want to allow your project to rise above the flat expectations of the genre. There's enough going on in "Ariel's Beginning" that works - kids will enjoy it plenty while parents won't object too much - but there's just not enough to make it memorable.
Video & Audio
As mentioned, the animation, while not completely matching the high quality of the original film, is still far above that of the usual Disney DTV fare. As such, the film truly sparkles in this anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer, which makes the most of bold colors and crisp detail. Simply dazzling.
The soundtrack comes in both Dolby 5.1 and DTS, both of which offer a rich, clear dynamic range, especially when the music kicks in. French and Spanish Dolby 5.1 dubs are also included, as are optional English SDH subtitles.
As with most Disney discs these days, "Ariel's Beginning" is coded with the studio's "Fast Play" option.
The bonus material kicks off with two deleted scenes ("Sebastian Follows the Girls" and "Ariel Follows Flounder"), presented in a storyboard format. Director Peggy Holmes hosts both clips and discusses why they were cut from the final film, which helps illustrate (no pun intended) the lengthy writing process of an animated movie. (5:41 total; presented in 1.78:1 flat letterbox)
Under the "Music & More" label, you'll find quick links to four of the movie's musical scenes, along with an option to play the entire film with on-screen lyrics. (Those lyrics comprise additional subtitle tracks in English, French, and Spanish, and as such, you can also bypass this menu and activate any of those tracks with your remote during regular playback.)
"Mermaid Discovery Vanity Game" isn't so much a game as a bit of clickable exploration, where you can visit the vanities of all seven princesses. Use your remote to click on various objects to learn more about them, and about the characters that own them.
"Splashdance: A Dancer's Adventures Under the Sea" offers an interesting take on the behind-the-scenes featurette. As Holmes hosts these making-of clips and cast and crew interviews, we learn that she's a dancer who's made the unlikely career jump to directing. Holmes admits she has no experience in drawing and animation; we see footage of her dancing and acting for the animation staff, which is admittedly a pretty nifty approach to the material. The rest is your typical (yet nicely presented) how-they-made-it stuff. (7:21; 1.78;1 flat letterbox)
"The Little Mermaid: Under the Sea and Behind the Scenes on Broadway" finds Sierra Boggess hosting a surprisingly detailed look at the "Little Mermaid" Broadway adaptation. Boggess (who plays Ariel on stage) offers a peppy tour of the backstage experience, with plenty of clips of the show's biggest moments and interviews with the supporting cast mixed in for good measure. (10:26; 1.78 anamorphic)
The usual batch of Disney previews rounds out the set; some previews also play as the disc loads.
Most Disney cheapie sequels are terrible, this we know. "Ariel's Beginning" falls into a second category, the sequel that's perfectly watchable yet not entirely memorable. Most grown-up fans will do fine to merely Rent It, but, keeping parents in mind, I'll add that kids will want to rewatch it enough to make a purchase worthwhile. Factoring in the solid transfer and decent extras, I'll call it Recommended.