"The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea" probably ought to have been titled "Little Mermaid II: Déjà Vu." It's "The Little Mermaid" one generation removed, with a little more music and humor and a little less violence. Call it "Little Mermaid Light." But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Parents who weren't terribly eager to have their little ones watch a giant sea witch impaled on the broken mast of a schooner may welcome this kinder, gentler version of Disney animation under the sea.
It's not quite the same level of animation, but most of the voices return--even the voice of Ursula, who was "shish-ka-bobbed" when last we saw her. But Pat Carroll was brought onboard again to give voice to the tentacled Morgana, the late Ursula's sinister sister. Jodi Benson returns as the voice of Ariel, Kenneth Mars repeats as King Triton, as well as Buddy Hackett as Scuttle and Samuel E. Wright as that Caribbean crustacean Sebastian. New for this direct-to-video sequel are Rob Paulsen as Prince Eric and Cam Clarke as Flounder, with Ariel's daughter, Melody, played by Tara Strong ("The Fairly OddParents," "Ben 10"). This one was animated by Disney Television Animation, which is responsible for turning out most of the sequels.
But the plot is certainly the same as the original "Little Mermaid." Just as Ariel was yearning for the world of humans, her daughter Melody is drawn to the sea. Ariel and Prince Eric had erected a protective wall to guard against any revenge-style mischief from Morgana, and that meant depriving their little girl of seeing her regal Grandpa Triton. Just as feisty Sebastian was responsible for keeping an eye on young Ariel, he has the same task here trying to look after Melody. And just as a tiff with Triton drives Ariel to strike a bargain with Ursula, Melody has a spat with her parents and swims right into the clutches of Morgana, who, like her late sister, promises to give the little girl what she wants . . . if, as with Ursula's bargain, she agrees to snatch and turn over King Triton's magic trident. The only difference is that her sea background and mermaid genes have been kept from Melody, and so she has no idea Triton is her grandfather. Other than that, it's a cookie-cutter script with no real twists.
The production values aren't bad, but when you have a chip of the old plot like this, it all starts to feel pretty ho-hum because we have seen it all before.
Another drop-off occurs with the music. There's a reprise of "Part of Your World" from the original film, but four newer songs from Michael and Patty Silversher are tuneful but forgettable. There's no Broadway vibe to this soundtrack. Overall, it feels much more small-screen than big-screen . . . which, of course, it is. But parents of little children may feel more comfortable having them watch this undersea animated feature than the 1989 classic because it's not as graphically violent and Morgana is as goofy as she is evil. She won't scare the bejeesus out of little ones the way that her sister did. Moments of peril are also fewer, and so this sequel will be of most use for parents whose daughters are into Disney princesses and want to see something with Ariel in it.
I find myself with little more to say about this film than it's a poorer copy of the original. There are far worse Disney sequels out there, like "The Return of Jafar," but this just doesn't have the magic or energy of the 1989 original. Then again, if I hadn't seen the original, I'd probably have given this a 7 out of 10 for the plot and animation. But when you've seen the plot before and the animation, while very very good, lacks the big-screen presence of the better Disney ventures, and the songs are lively enough but not show-stoppers, it's more a 5 out of 10.
"The Little Mermaid II" is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and as we've come to expect from Disney it features strong, vivid colors and near ultra-sharp detail for a DVD.
The audio is also superb, with a vibrant Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and French and Spanish language tracks. As with most TV Disney productions there are no subtitles. But the Dolby soundtrack scatters the sound over six channels in a natural way, with enough rear-speaker involvement to give you a sense of the Surround Sound experience.
When this was first released in 2000, the bonus features were a trivia game, a DVD storybook narrated by Jodi Benson, a "What Am I?" nature trivia game," and a "Merbabies" vintage Disney cartoon. All of those features are included on this Special Edition, along with a new game (which a sticker says is available for a Limited Time Only) and a deleted song from the film, "Gonna Get My Wish." The reissue comes in a cardboard slipcase, too, whereas the original DVD was a simple keep-case. Attached is a coupon to save $6 on the purchase of two Disney DVDs.
So, how are the features? The trivia game is a static screen with questions printed on the frame. The storybook narration by Benson is good, and it's always nice having a vintage Disney cartoon to amuse the little ones. But the best feature is the "What Am I?" game that has you guess sea creatures, and if you choose the right character from the movie you get a little live-action nature clip that tells you about the sea creature. It's a fantastic little bonus feature, especially for nature-loving youngsters. As for the new game, while the graphics are phenomenal, I had a hard time playing it on computer, and it might frustrate kids who, like me, have a hard time pressing buttons when a prompt tells you to. There are three challenges. One is learning to swim (and avoid predators and obstacles via arrow keys), the other is making friends, and a third is making music. You are awarded a pearl when you complete each section, and you've earned your mer-tail when you've completed all three. As I said, I couldn't figure out how to get past the first stage. Maybe a three year old will fare better.
Some Disney productions are for the whole family, but this one is for your little Disney princesses. It's not a bad movie, mind you, but if you've seen "The Little Mermaid" it feels like a knock-off when a more creative script might have been in order. Then again, if you consider that this has Fast-Play and includes some nice bonus features as diversions, it's a decent package for kids.