By 2000, Disney had proven the direct-to-video market to be surprisingly valuable, especially in the sequel department. Follow-ups to "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast" proved rather lucrative, while new adventures based on recent "lesser" hits "Pocahontas" and "Hercules" were welcomed just as easily on home video as the studio's top theatrical releases. The Mouse House would enter the new millennium with a sort of DTV sequel fever that wouldn't be cured until years later, after audiences finally started to tire of a barrage of titles of ever-decreasing quality.
But that would be later. 2000 was a pretty good year for Disney's DTV branch, with three sequels hitting video store shelves, and all three of them weren't too shabby at all: "An Extremely Goofy Movie" did a fine job recapturing the Goofy spirit; "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins" launched a new cartoon series with a tongue-in-cheek approach to the "Toy Story" space hero; and "The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea" was a charming, if markedly less magical, new adventure with Ariel and friends.
This wouldn't be the first spin-off from the 1989 movie - a weekly "Little Mermaid" cartoon, featuring "prequel" adventures with Ariel, ran on CBS from 1992-1994 - but it would mark the film's first direct sequel. (Like too many Disney sequels, this idea undermines the whole notion of Happily Ever After. Then again, what kid hasn't imagined new stories to fill that Ever After?) The exact time frame is never mentioned, but we're looking at a minimum of thirteen years later (and Ariel looks like she hasn't aged a day!), with the story involving the twelfth birthday of Melody, Ariel's daughter.
Melody (voiced by Tara Strong, credited here under her maiden name, Tara Charnedoff) loves to swim, but doesn't know of her mom's mermaid past. You see, years ago, Ursula's sister Morgana (Pat Carroll, who also voiced Ursula) tried to kidnap Melody, so Ariel (Jodi Benson) and Prince Eric (Rob Paulsen) vowed to hide their daughter from the sea, building a massive wall around their home. Ah, but we know a Disney character told not to go somewhere will inevitably go there, and soon Melody is diving where she shouldn't.
It's there she finds the locket once given to her by King Triton (Kenneth Mars), which grabs the attention of Morgana, who plans to trick Melody into helping her steal Triton's magical trident. The witch turns Melody into a mermaid and sends her to Atlantica. Along the way, the girl meets penguin Tip (Max Casella) and walrus Dash (Stephen Furst), whose comical attempts at heroism are all that prevent them from being a complete copy of Timon and Pumbaa from "The Lion King."
Indeed, there's little in the story that's original, with most of the script rehashing plot points and characterizations from the original "Little Mermaid." It's a fairly generic tale, with uninspired plotting, predictable action, and a handful of original songs that can't compare to the Menken-Ashman classics.
But it's also kinda fun; my daughter sure enjoyed the heck out of it, and I did, too. The jokes are cute, with the animators displaying a keen sense of visual humor. Tip and Dash, while formulaic as sidekicks, are plenty fun and earn their welcome. The thing's paced like gangbusters, with the limitations of Disney's mandatory short running times for their DTV projects actually helping here - it speeds along nicely without feeling rushed. Even the animation is impressive, for the most part; it's certainly not on the level of the 1989 film, but the amount of remarkable undersea detail makes up for the occasional clumsy character work straight out of the Saturday morning cartoon.
Disney has re-released "The Little Mermaid II" in a new Special Edition. (Remember, it's not a double dip, it's Disney "taking it out of the vaults"!) I haven't seen the original release from September 2000, but this seems to be something of a genuine upgrade, with a new anamorphic transfer; however, the bonus material remains lacking.
Video & Audio
This new release boasts an upgraded anamorphic transfer for the 1.66:1 widescreen presentation. Colors are spectacular here, as is the detail. The image is as sharp and bold as a new release.
I'm guessing that the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is the same mix from the original disc, but no matter: it's a solid track, clear and vibrant, with excellent presentation of the music and effects. The rear speakers are used to limited yet enjoyable effect. High quality Dolby 5.1 French and Spanish dubs are offered, as are English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
This special edition boasts two new (smallish) extras. "Gonna Get My Wish" (1:54, 1.66:1 flat letterbox) is a deleted song that offers up more screen time for Morgana. It's a cute song, nicely animated (the artwork here is complete), and short enough to be entertaining without overstaying its welcome. I wonder why it was dropped?
Less useful is the "Underwater Mer-venture Challenge Game," where viewers tackle a series of puzzles. Most of these games are simple (guess the silhouette, match the musical clams, etc.), but one game, in which players use their DVD remotes to navigate Melody through the ocean, is so poorly coded that you don't have to press any buttons at all to get through most of the game - but at the end, no matter which button you press (including the correct one!), you lose. Weird.
Left over from the 2000 disc are two more games: "The Little Mermaid II Trivia Game" (answer questions about the story) and the "What Am I? Game" (guess the sea animal to learn more about it). There's also the "Little Mermaid II DVD Storybook," which retells the film's story (read by Jodi Benson); you can also choose to read the on-screen text by yourself.
The final leftover is "Merbabies" (8:34, 1.33:1 full frame), a classic Silly Symphonies cartoon short. Those who remember being wowed by the detailed animation in "The Little Mermaid" will be stunned by equally intricate artwork here (all those bubbles!), made some five decades earlier. The story itself relies entirely on the "look how cute babies are!" factor, which grows old quickly - although kids will adore it.
The usual batch of Disney previews rounds out the set; some of those trailers also play as the disc loads. The disc is programmed with Disney's "FastPlay" feature, for those who enjoy the option.
Younger fans will be delighted once more by this sequel, a nice addition to the "Mermaid" franchise. Older fans may grumble at the double dip, but they'll appreciate the new anamorphic transfer, which is enough to make this upgrade Recommended.