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The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning DVD Review

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Movie & DVD Details

Director: Peggy Holmes / Writers: Robert Reece, Evan Spiliotopoulos (screenplay); Julie Selbo, Jenny Wingfield (story)

Voice Cast: Jodi Benson (Ariel), Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian), Jim Cummings (King Triton, Shelbow), Sally Field (Marina Del Rey), Tara Strong (Adella, Andrina), Jennifer Hale (Alana), Grey Delise (Aquata, Arista), Kari Wahlgren (Attina), Jeff Bennett (Benjamin), Parker Goris (Flounder), Lorelei Hill Butters (Queen Athena), Kevin Michael Richardson (Cheeks, Ray-Ray), Rob Paulsen (Ink Spot, Swifty)

Songs: "Athena's Song", "Just One Mistake", "Jump in the Line", "I Remember", "Just One Mistake (reprise)", "I Will Sing"

Running Time: 77 Minutes / Rating: G

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, DTS 5.1 (English),
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
DVD Release Date: August 26, 2008 / Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase with Embossed, Holographic Slipcover

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Have you ever wanted to see more of Ariel's life as a mermaid? Me neither. Nevertheless, that potentially interesting domain was explored for three seasons and 31 episodes of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" Saturday morning cartoon in the mid-1990s. Rather than simply putting those episodes on DVD,
the studio has decided to further dramatize the redheaded teenage princess' mer-past in the all-new direct-to-DVD prequel The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning. Supposedly the last entry in the fourteen-year-old line of DVD premieres continuously linked to existing Disney animated classics, this feature arrives with the respectable production values of a modern DisneyToon Studios work.

The film opens with Ariel as a young girl. A red-bearded King Triton is in love with his wife, Ariel's mother Athena. That Athena is the spitting image of Ariel gives this short stretch a bizarrely incestuous air, but within five minutes the prologue has ended with Athena dying to honor Disney's unwritten one-parented protagonist rule. Like any loving spouse, Triton takes the loss with difficulty. In his pain, he outlaws music throughout his kingdom, hoping to bury memories of an art that held special meaning for Athena and him.

Our little secret? Don't worry; younger, red-bearded King Triton is romantically shushing Ariel's mother Athena, who only looks just like her youngest daughter. And then dies. Utter surprise is the tone of Ariel's first meeting of Flounder, here a rhythmic renegade.

Ten years later, music is still prohibited in Atlantica. In addition to a lack of melody, there is a lack of happiness underwater, where Ariel and her six airhead sisters (all young adults with names that start with "A") generally find their regimented lives to be a royal drag. Swiftly emerging as villain is the girls' governess Marina Del Rey (voiced by Sally Field), a conniving career woman who sees ousting Triton's advisor Sebastian the crab as the key to advancing herself. Though Marina is a mermaid not a sea witch, she shares a number of traits with past movie antagonists Ursula and Morgana, ugly looks ranking as the most noticeable.

It turns out that not all of the King's subjects are upholding his no-music policies, as Ariel is introduced to Flounder and soon after discovers a hopping, clandestine music scene called the Catfish Club. Marina pounces on the transgression, earning herself an upgrade and the princesses a severe punishment. With a temper less easy to comprehend, Triton reprimands Ariel in particular for her musical pursuits. I'll refrain from sharing any more plot specifics, although it's admittedly quite easy to guess where things go from here. Dramatic coup? Action climax? Original songs? You'll simply have to watch to find out.

Conniving mermaid governess Marina Del Ray is comforted by her manicurist manatee Benjamin. Disney appears to be targeting a thus-ignored demographic with these two characters. Youngest princess Ariel is the center of attention, as her experience in the underground music scene earns awe from, left to right, Alana, Arista, Attina, Andrina, Aquata, and Adella.

Technically, Ariel's Beginning is a pretty sound production. The animation obviously wasn't created in the exact same way as it was for the 1989 treasure preceded dramatically. And yet, the style is impressively recaptured. One notices more extensive use of computers, but there's a definite artistry involved here and the results are more aesthetically pleasing than the sterile attempts from the turn of the millennium, such as 2000's The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea.

The movie also finds moderate success in its songs, which are penned by Broadway veteran Jeanine Tesori. They may not carry the dramatic weight and timelessness of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's compositions for the original film, but they're fairly catchy. They're paired with some active dance numbers staged by first-time director Peggy Holmes, who as one of the disc's featurette points out, has up until now worked chiefly as choreographer.

Where I find the movie a lot more disappointing is the script by returning DisneyToon scribes Robert Reece and Evan Spiliotopoulos. On its own merits, the writing could be forgiven. But the retconning it entails is regularly troublesome and often downright inane. I'm okay ignoring the fact that significant characters like Marina and her soft-spoken sea green manatee Benjamin can be introduced here and go entirely unmentioned in the immediate after in which The Little Mermaid seems to take place. That's practically inevitable for a prequel and the TV series was understandably more guilty in this regard.

Marina revels in being Triton's top adviser while donning one of her flashiest outfits conceived by fashion designer/doll costumer Bob Mackie. Ariel gets a good close look at her parents' enchanted, long-lost musical box.

But is it necessary to take the beloved, endearing personalities from the original film and twist them to fit a generally uninspired plot?

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Ariel and her sisters spend ten formative years unexposed to music but are instantly giving concerts? And Flounder, well-known as a fearful guppy, is here a rhythmic renegade? I'm not buying it. The depictions truer to the universe like Ariel and Sebastian, aided by the return of voice actors Jodi Benson and Samuel E. Wright, do seem a little creatively stifled. As easy as such observations are to make, they underscore the obstacles that need to be cleared in order to make a satisfying follow-up (or prequel) in a universe already established and appreciated. Once again, it seems to be potential revenue and not brilliant ideas behind this tale.

In light of its challenges and benefits, Ariel's Beginning fares okay. It has a tough act to follow by serving as feature segue to one of Disney's all-time greatest films. At the same time, that film is only 19 years removed and thus not as sacred or distant as more offensively sequelized works like Bambi and Cinderella.

In the end, plenty would argue that a movie like this isn't meant to be enjoyed in the same way that its theatrical predecessor is. Primarily, it is to be bought and rented for young children more likely to embrace the pretty colors and peppy songs than object to incongruous characterization and substandard storytelling. That doesn't mean the filmmakers couldn't and shouldn't have done a better job. Even so, they could have done worse. If this is the only current means for 2-D animation to live on, so be it for now and let's hope that DisneyToon has some good things up their sleeve as they hereafter aspire to spin-offs and original projects.

VIDEO and AUDIO

It comes as no surprise that Ariel's Beginning appears in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks positively terrific on DVD. The movie boasts pristine imagery, vibrant colors, and appropriate sharpness in its painless digital transfer. In the sound department, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks are provided in English. I listened to the latter and found it sufficient but definitely not as lively, atmospheric, or active as one might expect or hope for.

Ariel eavesdrops on a Sebastian/Flounder Catfish Club conversation in this deleted scene. Learn more about the seven mersisters with the Mermaid Discovery Vanity Game. That eighth bubble means you've unlocked a personality profile quiz. Director Peggy Hughes and choreographer Cecilie Stuart show off their dance moves to inspire a Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning animator.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Disney's direct-to-video sequels are generally treated to modest extras slates designed to dress up a rear cover more than provide entertainment. This new Little Mermaid DVD may not altogether buck that trend, but it does deliver a few items of interest.

First up are two deleted scenes (5:40) in storyboard format,
introduced by director Peggy Holmes. The first is an alternate introduction for Sebastian, while the second varies the way the Catfish Club is discovered and first entered.

Next and least special is Disney Song Selection, which presents four musical numbers with onscreen lyrics utilizing standard subtitles. You can either watch all four (6:00), or watch the entire movie again with lyrics being displayed.

Under Games & Activities, we get the Mermaid Discovery Vanity Game. While not much of a game, it does shed light on Ariel's sisters. You explore each of the girl's vanity mirror areas, click to briefly animate items laying there, and read/listen to a dossier and diary excerpt. In the process, you get much more of a feel for the shallow siblings than in the film. Once you find Flounder, you're treated to a personality profile quiz that tells you which sister you're most like.

Finally, we get a couple of featurettes in Backstage Disney. "Splashdance: A Dancer's Adventures Under the Sea" (7:20) is a succinct, all-encompassing piece that touches on Peggy Holmes' unique qualifications as a choreographer-turned-animation director and spotlights the vocal contributions of Jodi Benson and Samuel E. Wright.

Broadway's Ariel, Sierra Boggess, takes us behind the scenes of The Little Mermaid stage musical. Ariel monitors the main menu as Flounder stops by briefly.

"The Little Mermaid: From Screen to Stage - Under the Sea and Behind the Scenes on Broadway" (10:25) looks at Disney's musical adaptation that opened on Broadway this year. Star Sierra Boggess (Ariel) takes us backstage to look at her costumes, talk with her castmates, and show us some make-up transformations. It's kid-oriented and obviously meant to promote the young show, but it's still very neat for disc space that would have gone unused to instead give us an up-close look at a relevant production.

The disc launches with the now-default Disney company promo; trailers for Sleeping Beauty: Platinum Edition, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea Special Edition, Tinker Bell, and The Secret of the Magic Gourd;
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and a brief spot for Disney Movie Rewards. From the Sneak Peeks menu or immediately after the movie with FastPlay enabled, there are additional ads for 101 Dalmatians II: Special Edition, Hannah Montana and High School Musical DVD games, My Friends Tigger & Pooh: Tigger & Pooh and a Musical Too!, WALL-E, and Disney Cruise Line.

The jazzy main menu has Ariel keep watch as bubbles rise and various sea creatures swim by. The Bonus Features menu acts similarly, only with Ariel and her sisters now among the passersby. All additional menus feature score excerpts but no animation.

The DVD comes housed in an embossed cardboard slipcover that liberally applies holographic effects to the front cover's backdrop. Inside the case are a scene/extras list; a pamphlet promoting Blu-ray and a Little Mermaid-themed Disney Movie Rewards sweepstakes (with entry code); and a mini-booklet advertising a variety of Disney properties, including Return to the Sea: Special Edition (due December 9) and Space Buddies (February 3).

The Catfish Club comes to life with an assortment of aquatic life in song and dance. Surrounded by pretty blue ocean, Ariel belts out a song to the shock and horror of Calypso crab Sebastian.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning seems to fall into the midrange of Disney's direct-to-video animated films. Production values on this prequel are about as high as ever, but the generic story adjusts and weakens characters instead of showcasing and developing them. If you've enjoyed past DTV sequels, by all means give this one a view. I doubt that it will excel at entertaining you or change your overall opinion on the class. But this universe remains compelling even in a forgettable visit and young ones especially may be won over. The DVD is par for the course, delivering a fine feature presentation and a modest but explorable bonus features slate.

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Related Reviews:
The Little Mermaid (Platinum Edition) The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (Special Edition)
"The Little Mermaid" TV series: Princess Stories, Vol. 1 ("Wish Upon a Starfish") Princess Stories, Vol. 2 ("Ariel's Treasures")
Disney Princess Sing Along Songs, Volume 1 Disney Princess Sing Along Songs, Volume 3
The Little Mermaid: 2-Disc Special Edition Soundtrack (CD) Disney's Karaoke Series: The Little Mermaid (CD)
New to DVD: The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds Concert
The Princess and the Frog Enchanted The Sword in the Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition Cinderella II: Dreams Come True Cinderella III: A Twist in Time
Freakazoid!: Season 1 Smurfs: Season 1, Volume 1 Tarzan II Mulan II Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers

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Reviewed August 25, 2008.