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Toon Talk: The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning
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by Kirby C. Holt
The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning
MPAA Rating: G
Disney’s direct-to-video sequels are largely ignored and/or reviled by most hardcore Disney enthusiasts. And while there has been some quality examples (Bambi II, The Lion King 1 ˝), the majority have been mediocre at best, completely deserving of their bad reputation at worst. Falling into the latter category is 2000’s The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea. With its shoddy animation, contrived storyline and unappealing new characters (there’s a reason why Ariel’s daughter Melody never joined the princess line-up), I would even go so far as to say it is the worst of the worst (yes, even more then The Return of Jafar and The Hunchback of Notre Dame II).
So it is ironic that, as the video sequels are slowly dying down at Disney (while increasing at other studios such as Paramount and Universal), the studio has gone back under the sea to produce a mermaid tale that makes up for the previous blasphemous blunder. That movie is The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, new to DVD this week.
Wisely ditching any thoughts of a direct follow-up to Return to the Sea, Ariel’s Beginning returns to the sea anyway … and stays there; save for one brief sequence on the surface, the story mostly takes place in and around the undersea kingdom of Atlantica. Additionally, for the bulk of the action, the clock is turned back to roughly one year before the events of the original Little Mermaid feature. Prior to that, though, a prologue shows us the joyful … and tragic … early days of our favorite mermaid and her family. A young King Triton (voiced by ace imitator Jim Cummings, stepping in for the absent Kenneth Mars) is seen with his happy brood of adorable toddler daughters and, for the first time, his beautiful queen, Athena (Lorelei Hill Butters). Their blissful lives are filled with love and music, until the fateful day when the queen is taken from them. Overwhelmed with grief, Triton bans all music from the kingdom (shades of, of all things, Footloose), lest it remind him of his lost love.
Cut to ten years later, and the daughters of Triton have grown into dutiful princesses, overseen by their ambitious governess Marina Del Rey (voiced by Sally Field, although the two time Academy Award winner’s name is oddly absent from all promotional materials). Restless under the rule of their strict father and his second-in-command crab Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), it is the youngest, Ariel (Jodi Benson) who develops a rebellious streak (no big surprise there). Ariel soon meets her future BFF Flounder (Parker Goris), who unknowingly leads her to the secret, speak easy-type Catfish Club, where music is king … and Sebastian is the master of ceremonies. Exposed to the wonders and magic of song and dance once more, Ariel is reinvigorated, and anxious to share the experience with her sisters.
However, the devious Marina -- who wants Sebastian’s job -- tells all to King Triton, who promptly closes the joint down and imprisons Sebastian, Flounder and their be-boppin’ buddies (in the jail sequence, movie buffs will get a kick out of some unexpected homages to The Shawshank Redemption and Dog Day Afternoon). Meanwhile, Ariel and her sisters are confined to the castle, but that doesn’t stop our heroine from escaping, her new friends in tow. Sebastian leads them to a secluded spot that may hold the answers to all their problems, but an enraged Marina, along with her vicious pet electric eels, are soon on their tail.
Ariel’s Beginning is everything Return to the Sea wasn’t: endearing, charming and even moving (for example, the relationship between King Triton and Queen Athena is palatably real and achingly bittersweet). The theme of families sticking together through good times and bad is prevalent throughout, resulting in more screen time -- and character development -- for Ariel’s sisters then ever before. Furthermore, the prequel (unlike the sequel) hews closer to the Mermaid mythos … mostly; Ariel does come off a tad more mature then the wide-eyed innocent seen in the feature. And, as seen here, Flounder is far from the “guppy” he is in the original film.