Chief Justice Michael Stailey is a little pruney at the moment.
Every story has a beginning, but only one begins under the sea.
Late into the Michael Eisner regime, Disney was bleeding its many franchise characters dry by churning out sub-par sequels like a Wal-Mart South American sweat shop. But when Bob Iger took over the company, initiated the merger with Pixar, and placed prodigal son John Lasseter at the helm of the company's animation division, Walt's original nine old men smiled a collective ethereal smile. The pillaging and plundering had finally ended. And while there were still a few projects left in active development, John and his team ran them through the development gauntlet before giving the green light to continue. True, the damage had been done and there was no way to erase the litany of past embarrassments (Cinderella II, Jungle Book 2, Belle's Magical World), but they could at the very least ensure that these memorable characters would be held in high regard going forward. Such is the case of The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning. While not a slam dunk successor to the original, this touching prequel adventure further enhances the story of Ariel and the unique bond she shares with her father, King Triton.
Facts of the Case
Long ago, the Kingdom of Atlantica was a magical place filled with music and love as set forth by the royal family of King Triton, Queen Athena, and their seven daughters. But a tragic accident shattered that world, and in their grief the kingdom suffered. Anything that reminded the King of his lost love was to be removed from sight and earshot. With a hardened heart, Triton threw himself into his work, hiring a governess to raise his daughters, and his forcing his subjects deep underground to keep their musical passions alive. But the spirit of Athena could not be supressed. Growing strong in their youngest daughter, Ariel, the awkwardly unassuming water nymph was about set this now regimented kingdom on its ear.
By all rights, The Little Mermaid should stand shoulder to shoulder with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians as the crown jewels of Disney animation. Snow's pioneering ingenuity, Beauty's sweeping visuals, and Dalmatians stylized pop art humor defined the company for two generations, but when the foundation of that great tradition began to crumble under the weight of its own bloated complacency, it was Mermaid that rebirthed Disney's once proud glory. So it's with great trepidation that we approach Ariel's Beginning, knowing full well that its predecessor The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea was an uninspired mistake. But director Peggy Holmes takes a script from Robert Reece (Cinderella III: A Twist in Time) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Lion King 1 1/2) and crafts a heartwarming father/daughter tale of love and loss, with enough extraneous goofiness to entertain the kids.
Ariel continues to be the wide-eyed optimist, wanting nothing more than to experience life to its fullest. Her discovery of the kingdom's underground music scene, courtesy of new friend Flounder, and the ultimate redemption of her father's broken heart propels the story and leads us seamlessly into the opening of the original film. There were concerns on the part of Jodi Benson—who has voiced and embodied Ariel for more than 20 years—that the writers were trying too hard to modernize the character, but her insistence on remaining true to Ariel's innocence has paid off. While many of her supporting cast fill that 21st Century hipster vibe, there are no major disconnects in franchise.
Where Ariel's Beginning does falter is in its musical lifeblood, or lack thereof. The late Howard Ashman was the emotional core of Disney's modern royalty—Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine. And while Broadway's Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and composer James Dooley infuse their own musical talents into the film, they don't come anywhere close to Howard's genius. Jodi does get an opportunity to exercise her chords on "I Remember" and is always in fine form, but when Howard passed away, so did Ariel's true voice. So to label this a musical, would be false advertising. This is no more evident than in the character of Marina Del Rey, the girls' governess. While she's definitely no Ursula, feebly talk-singing her way through "One Mistake," Oscar winner Sally Field creates an otherwise engaging portrayal, despite the lyrical failings. Unfortunately, Marina's evil ways fall well short of expectations, lacking originality (lifting Ursula's eel infatuation) and leaving her a toothless villain in the Disney pantheon. Another surprising disappointment can be found in the performance of Sam Wright as Sebastian. The 61 year old seems to have lost the spark and vocal edge that made the crustacean so memorable to begin with. There are times the character doesn't even sound like himself. But all performance shortcomings are forgiven whenever Triton appears. Jim Cummings does a masterful job with this complex emotional role, and in doing so becomes the definitive voice for this Disney monarch. He is, without a doubt, the highlight of the film.
Elevating the level of ToonDisney animation from television grade to a step below feature quality, the 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation meshes well with Ariel's original big screen adventure. A rich color palette, detailed backgrounds, a nicely integrated mix of traditional and computer animation, and a depth of shading make up for the somewhat simplified character design. Ariel's sisters are fairly interchangeable, with few visual and personality touches to differentiate themselves. Marina looks like a generic amalgam of Medusa (The Rescuers), Cruella DeVille (101 Dalmatians), and Cinderella's wicked stepmother. And her sidekick, Benjamin, is a bland underdeveloped manatee too often blending into the background (belying an otherwise fun performance by Jeff Bennett). But Ariel, Flounder, Sebastian, and King Triton remain true to established form.
The DTS and Dolby 5.1 audio mixes are nothing special, given that the film is extremely dialogue driven. There's little in the way of ambient effects and Dooley's score is rather forgettable. Even the depth of character voice placement in this vast undersea world seems lacking.
In terms of bonus materials, the selection is fairly pedestrian. A behind the scenes featurette on director Peggy Holmes, two deleted scenes, an interactive games to determine which of Ariel's sisters you are most like, and a sing along option do nothing to truly enhance the experience. The only real value is a brief behind the scenes look at The Little Mermaid on Broadway, hosted by its Ariel, Sierra Boggess.
Focusing solely on the character development of Ariel and her father, this heartfelt tale is worth 77 minutes of your time. Everything else is water weight.
A pleasant day at the beach.
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