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"The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning": How To Keep Fish Fresh

The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning is the third installment of Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid movies. That’s not to say it is the final chapter in some sort of sequential trilogy. Quite the opposite: It’s a prequel to the original Little Mermaid movie from 1989, which spawned a direct-to-video sequel The Little Memaid II: Return to the Sea in 2003, which, in sort of a neat way, matches up to real time, as it takes place about 12 years after the first movie. Ariel’s Beginning takes a step back into the water and takes place a year or so before the original movie. Got all that?

Believe it or not, this isn’t Disney’s first attempt to give viewers a still-a-mermaid Ariel by taking a trip to the past. There was a three-season Little Mermaid animated series that ran from 1992 until 1994. It wasn’t a bad show, and it still airs on the Disney Channel, but ultimately, it has no relevance to Ariel’s Beginning (and is probably best forgotten while watching the DTV, as it depicts the first meeting between Ariel and Flounder differently). It’s understandable that Disney would want to go back to the world of the Little Mermaid, but at the end of the first movie, Ariel became human. How can we still see fun deep sea characters living in an ocean setting if the main character can’t breathe underwater anymore? The second movie solved that problem by reversing the plot of the original movie and giving Ariel a human daughter who longs to live under the sea. Ariel’s Beginning turns back the clock to a time before Ariel even wondered what was up there. You can’t have a Little Mermaid movie be without mermaids, and thankfully, there’s enough new material to explore. I have to give the movie credit for not treading upon any of the ground touched upon by the original movie or the sequel. The two previous movies were about longing for an escape to a different world, this one’s about feeling unhappy in one’s own world and the attempt to fix it. And at the heart of it is Ariel’s discovery of music.

Ariel’s Beginning answers a few questions that may be lingering in the minds of those who’ve enjoyed the movies, particularly the fate of a certain parental figure. I don’t care to try and remember how many Disney characters have at least one suspiciously absent parent, but I know it’s a lot. Ariel’s blustering but caring father, King Triton, plays an important role in the movies, but her mother has never been mentioned. Ariel’s Beginning starts off with a six-year-old Ariel who had both her parents and was living in a simpler time when the whole family was happy. What happens to Ariel’s mother, Queen Athena, turns Triton into a cold and distant monarch who ends up banning music from his kingdom. Ten years later, Ariel is unhappy about all the dreariness in her life and tries to bring joy to Atlantica. The movie explains how Ariel first discovered music and why singing is so important to her. It is a pretty good theme to rest the movie on.

Familiar faces pop up in the movie, as Sebastian, Flounder, King Triton, and Ariel’s sisters all have their roles. Sadly, the only returning cast members are Jodi Benson as Ariel and Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian. I guess when the first movie is twenty years old, this kind of thing is bound to happen. The new voices aren’t particularly distracting, though, and the animation is pretty impressive for a DTV. There are a couple exploration and chase scenes that show the ocean’s depths quite well.

The movie has its fun moments, and it’s good to see Ariel’s sisters get some development. Why seven princesses who live in an undersea palace have to share the same room is beyond me, but hey, it helps the comedy. It’s also probably easier for kids watching this to relate to siblings that get in each other’s space rather than half man/half fish royalty anyway. Ariel’s sisters are well used as foils to Ariel herself, who is more curious than they are and less complacent about the status quo. The Catfish Club Band, which features a manta, a turtle, an octopus, and some fish, also plays a significant role. They’ve been around since the first movie, mostly as background decoration, but they’re a funny bunch. The movie isn’t loaded with laughs, but the sisters and the band are amusing.

The antagonist of the film is a mermaid named Marina Del Rey, voiced by Sally Field. She looks after Triton’s daughters and vies for Sebastian’s job. She’s no powerful sea witch, but then again, how many times can you use that in a story? She has a pale-green sidekick named Benjamin; I assume he is meant to be a manatee, but he looks more like a hippopotamus or some kind of dinosaur. Benjamin had some funny lines, but Marina didn’t have a lot going for her. She is more Sebastian’s nemesis than Ariel’s and only comes to oppose Ariel because of her association with Sebastian. Ariel’s real struggle is against her father as she tries to warm his heart, but since the climax is driven by Marina’s scheme, neither conflict comes across as very important. At least Marina gets some pets who are pretty cool and menacing.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I love the first Little Mermaid movie. By now, Disney fans should be used to having direct-to-video sequels that don’t come close to living up to the quality of the original movie. I found that the real problem with this film isn’t the lackluster climax; the real problem is the unmemorable music. The music in the original movie was amazing. The songs ranged from fun to energetic to eerie to romantic to hopeful and everything in between. Ariel’s Beginning suffers from a severe lack of original music that highlights the story and is a waste of the singing talents of Benson, Wright, and the rest of the cast. It’s bad enough they played the overused “Jump In Line” song (their first mistake was using a song made popular by Beetlejuice), but it’s sung on two separate occasions. Opportunities to use original songs presented themselves, but they weren’t taken advantage of. I wasn’t expecting songs on par with the original movie, but at least Return to the Sea had a few solid tunes that tied into the plot. Not that Ariel’s Beginning is completely devoid of good music. “I Remember” in particular gets good mileage, but, to quote a lyric from a song more memorable than any in this movie, I want more.

The DVD itself is an okay package. The special features are light, particularly the deleted scenes, which are so sparse that the “Play All” option should really read “Play Both”. At least the deleted scenes are given introductions. You can also play the movie’s songs by themselves with the added option of having the lyrics on.

I didn’t have high expectations for this movie going in, so I’m not going to insult it by saying it met my expectations. Ariel’s Beginning was a fun movie with some heartfelt moments. If you like the Little Mermaid movies, this one does the character of Ariel justice and manages to set a few things up that lead into the first movie. Don’t expect it to be as moving or wonderfully done as the original, but it isn’t terrible. It doesn’t swim, but it doesn’t sink either. It just sort of floats.

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