For little girls, Ariel is one of the most beloved of Disney princesses, and she holds a warm place in the hearts of parents as well. In 1989, "The Little Mermaid" launched a new Golden Age for Disney animation, raising the bar with Broadway-style musical numbers, intelligent storylines, better-integrated comic relief, and breathtaking animation that would continue with films like "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "The Lion King" (1994), and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996). So it's no surprise that this direct-to-home-video prequel has been as much anticipated as the more heavily hyped "Tinker Bell" movie.
The good news for mermaid-lovers is that while the overall look and feel of "The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning" comes closer to the animated Disney television show than it does a big-screen epic, the script from Robert Reece ("Cinderella III: A Twist in Time") and Evan Spiliotopoulos ("Pooh's Heffalump Movie") is more satisfying than a TV episode. And first-time feature director Peggy Holmes does a good job cultivating performances that find a comfortable niche somewhere between Saturday-morning cartoons and those bigger screen dramas.
Not all of the original voice talents are here from the Ron Clements and John Musker classic, but the ones whose absence you'd notice are at least a part of the project. Jodi Benson returns as Ariel, as she did for "The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea" (2000) direct-to-video sequel. So does fast-talking Samuel E. Wright, with his heavily Jamaican rendition of Sebastian the crab.
As is the case with so many Disney sequels and prequels, the main narrative arc is pretty simple and music is a driving force. In this case, those two notions intersect, because "Ariel's Beginning" is all about how music was banned in the underwater kingdom of Atlantica until a rebellious Ariel and her fishy friends found a way to make King Triton forget the past and embrace a musical future--Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, a theme as old as Milton. But parents be warned: you might have a little explaining to do ("Is she dead?"), because while it happens off-camera and nothing graphic is shown, "Ariel's Beginning" begins with a "Bambi" moment, as we watch the idyllic world of merpeople literally dashed when a marauding pirate ship slams into their beloved Queen Athena, Ariel's mom.
From there, though, "Ariel's Beginning" feels more like a cross between "The Sound of Music" and "Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses." Like Baron von Trapp, King Triton (Jim Cummings) can't bear to hear singing, because it reminds him of his late wife. And like the military man from that Broadway musical, he relates to his children in rigid fashion, always walking with them when the kids would prefer to run, play, or dance for a change. But just as happens with "12 Dancing Princesses," Ariel finds a hidden place where she eventually brings her six sisters-an undersea sanctuary where Atlanticans can play music and dance. Since King Triton's goon squad of snarling swordfish is always on the lookout for violators, these sequences are also reminiscent of any number of films you've seen that are set during Prohibition. The speakeasy here is The Catfish Club.
"Ariel's Beginning" shows how the princess meets Flounder (voiced here by Parker Goris), and how Sebastian became Court Composer. And of course it shows how Ariel becomes her father's favorite child, the one who reminds him the most of her mother.
If your child liked the "Under the Sea" number from the original film, then he/she will probably like this prequel, because there's a lot of music and dancing, most of it to the strains of calypso and the rest of it incorporating original tunes by Jeanine Tesori. Holmes' background is in dance and choreography, and she says in one of two Backstage Disney bonus features that she thinks of animation as "an amazing form of choreography" that she felt right at home directing. Calypso standards "Shake Shake Shake Senora (Jump in the Line)" and "Man Smart Woman Smarter" are here, along with strains of other Caribbean tunes, with fish, sea creatures, and mermaids in near-constant movement. Though Tesori's songs aren't as memorable as the Alan Menken tunes that had you humming "Under the Sea" or "Kiss de Girl" on your way out of the theater, they're respectable songs that have pleasant melodies and lyrics.
Some people rate Disney films according to how strong the villain is, and Marina del Rey is a cross between Yzma from "The Emperor's New Groove" and Medusa from "The Rescuers." She's a bald-headed mermaid who wears a wig and too much purple and red make-up and aspires to more power than she has in the kingdom. Her plan? To discredit Sebastian so she can take his place as King Triton's right-hand "man." Yeah, well, if she were really evil in the really classic Disney villain sense, she'd want King TRITON'S job. She's a milder villain, really, who comes across as being more oddball than truly menacing, but that's the way she's written. The biggest surprise about Marina comes when the end credits roll and you see that she's voiced by none other than Sally Field, who also supplies Marina's singing voice!
Though the production design looks more small- than big-screen, it's a colorful and rich-looking tapestry of undersea critters and backgrounds-nothing skimpy or minimalist about the artwork-that nicely complements the music. The only standout, design-wise, is a new creature called Benjamin (Jeff Bennett), a sea cow of some sort (dugong, perhaps?) who looks disproportionately larger and rounder than the way the other sea creatures are rendered--kind of like an undersea Barney. Every villain needs a toady, but this dugong, like Marina herself, isn't as evil as you'd expect. He seems nice, actually, much nicer than King Triton's swordfish squad. So if parents are looking for a mild animated feature, one that won't make the kids' hair stand on end, apart from that opening off-camera death there's nothing too menacing here. And there are some occasionally funny lines, too, as when Flounder quips, "I can't make it in the slammer" or one of Ariel's least intelligent sisters accuses the other of taking her hairbrush because it has her initial on it. "All of our names start with A, Aquata," one of the other sisters says drolly.
Girls will like this because of the focus on Ariel and her sisters Adella, Adrina (Tara Strong), Alana (Jennifer Hale), Aquata, Arista (Grey Delisle), and Attina (Kaki Wahlgren). Boys will like it because of the proliferation of undersea creatures and comedy. And parents will like it because that easy calypso music that washes over this prequel makes you relax and think, No problems, mon.
Disney has always done a good job with direct-to-home-video production values, and "Ariel's Beginning" is no exception. The picture (1.78:1 aspect ratio) looks sharp, and the colors are so bright and saturated that they'd bleed if you squeezed them. This is "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions, meaning it fills the entire screen.
Surprisingly, there's a kick-ahem DTS 5.1 Digital Surround option. It's not the default, so be sure to select it if your amplifier supports it, because it's more dynamic than the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround that's the other option in English. There are also French and Spanish tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1. No subtitles. But the sound is pure, the bass driving without vibrating the floor (more bass, actually, than we usually see in a Disney release), and the treble is bright and cheery without sounding metallic.
Disney has figured out that you can offer pared-down bonus features if you do them well, and you get two extended deleted scenes (Sebastian waking the girls, Ariel following flounder) along with a sing-along option for watching the feature. There's only one game and two Backstage Disney features that run roughly seven minutes apiece, but all three are well done.
The game is a multi-functional Mermaid Discovery Vanity Game that encourages your little ones to click on objects on adjacent vanities. Click on a musical score and you see the instrument that the sister likes to play; click on another object and you get a sound or quote from the sister; click on their diary and you get a page of likes and dislikes, followed by an entry for the day, with the voice of Ariel reading it aloud to you. If you click on an object and find Flounder hiding, you can navigate to a "reward" that's a Personality Game. Kids can click on a series of questions (read aloud) and see which sister they're most like. There's a lot here for kids to do, in other words, though the target age range is probably 3-8.
Adults and kids will both like seeing a glimpse of the Broadway production of "The Little Mermaid" on a tour guided by Sierra Boggess, who plays Ariel in the stage version. You'll go into wardrobe and see her costumes, meet the women who play her sisters and the man who plays Sebastian, and catch clips of the performance onstage. In the other engaging feature, "Splashdance," we get a warm and likeable Holmes talking about her dance background and we see clips of her using that dance behind the scenes in order to direct this feature. More than most short making-of features it's really engaging, perhaps because Holmes is and the idea of a dancer being given the reins of a production like this is an interesting one. In other words, the extras that are included are good ones, but they will make you wish there were more.
For a DVD TOWN exclusive "bonus feature," check out this interview with the voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson.
It's not as strong as "The Little Mermaid," but that should come as no surprise. For a direct-to-home-video release, "Ariel's Beginning" is entertaining and well-crafted. It's a tuneful, colorful, under-the-sea adventure that should appeal to boys as well as girls. But for if you ask me, there was just one dugong too many.