In some ways, Disney’s The Little Mermaid — Ariel’s Beginning is just another made-for-DVD spinoff of a theatrical animated hit. Familiar characters and voice actors return, yes, but the animation isn’t nearly on a level with the original, and in this case — with such a hard act to follow — neither are the songs.
But one thing truly pops out about this prequel to 1989’s The Little Mermaid: As its title suggests, it’s a beginning, but in crucial ways so was its source movie, which was as pivotal a picture in the history of Disney animation as 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Snow White, of course, was Disney’s first feature-length animated film and a brave project which, during lengthy production, was widely branded around Hollywood as “Disney’s folly.” Who’d want to sit through a feature-length musical cartoon, anyway, when animation routinely ran in theaters as seven-minute comedy shorts?
But people didn’t just see it. They adored it, making Disney a new power in theatrical production, a power that’s continued to this day.
Yet after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, that power began to fade. In the turbulent ’70s — a decade of unbridled creativity but also unprecedented rawness in mainstream movies — Disney became a relic in search of a future-forward identity. Its live-action and animated films were largely G-rated clunkers, and the studio struggled to find a contemporary niche.
Finally, with The Little Mermaid, it did. Thanks largely to the superb songcraft of composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Disney delivered a Broadway-worthy musical (which is where it wound up in 2007) with a spry sense of modernity and not a whiff of stuffy, old-hat innocence. The film was a huge hit and won two Oscars — Disney’s first for an animated film in 18 years. And though it was Disney’s final animated feature totally reliant on hand-painted cells, it launched a rebirth of Disney as an animation powerhouse and led to a long line of hits melding strong music with modern sensibilities, from Aladdin and The Lion King to Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Of course, that bubble burst when computer animation claimed Disney’s long-held throne. Now Pixar delivers most “Disney” hits. Nonetheless, The Little Mermaid is a landmark Disney film — a rejuvenating elixir for a studio that had been stumped. And now, after almost two decades, we see its straight-to-DVD “beginning.”
A prequel, Ariel’s Beginning starts with back-story about the tragic loss of Ariel’s mother and King Triton’s queen, leaving Ariel and her six sisters to languish in a typical teen state — sullen self-absorption — while a grieving Triton unaccountably bans all music from his undersea kingdom. Ariel finds a way around that, of course, and soon the waters are alive with the sound of music — not remarkable or memorable, but frothy and fun, and often evoking the Busby Berkeley style adopted in the original (and repeated, in a warped way, at China’s closing Olympics ceremonies, which played like Fellini meets Busby Berkeley in a creepy collective worker hive).
Ariel’s Beginning also has some unwelcome detours into slangy current-day talk — sheer pandering which doesn’t jibe with the feature film to come. (This one appears to be set shortly before events of the original.)
Still, it’s good to see lovable characters again, particularly Samuel E. Wright’s Sebastian. And while new villainess Marina (voiced by Sally Field) is minor league (as a power-mad governess, she’s Mary Poppins with ‘roid rage), the film’s high spirits — and its glorification of music — still carry the day.
A new day? Hardly. Really more of a recycled one. But if any Disney movie of the past 20 years deserves a revisit via prequel or sequel, it’s The Little Mermaid, a film without which so much Disney glory which followed might never have happened.