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The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning

DisneyToon Studios/Walt Disney Home Entertainment (August 26 2008), single disc, 77 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated G, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

Ever wonder what happened to Ariel before Disney’s 1989 animated The Little Mermaid’s story began? Nope, and neither did John Musker, Ron Clements – who neglected to present such a convoluted history in their film – or even Hans Christian Andersen, to whom I’m sure the following would have given him more than a little shock! But, here it is anyway: some hogwash about how music changed the merpeople’s lives, and then didn’t, and then did again. Apparently.

The Sweatbox Review:

A pale, negative reversal of the original animated film’s story, featuring thinly sketched characters and banal songs with trite lyrics: in 2000, Disney’s still new direct to video unit released The Little Mermaid II: Return To The Sea, a follow-up to the Studio’s 1989 classic that sought to continue Ariel’s story as a DTV outing. After the meshing together of the first five episodes from the Aladdin television series, and early video sequel efforts for Beauty And The Beast (in the form of an Enchanted Christmas mid-quel) and The Lion King (Simba’s Pride, which showed great promise), the unit that would eventually become known as DisneyToon had proved it could deliver the kind of programming that wasn’t going to win any big screen awards but that dug out a niche of its own in the home video and the then-growing DVD market.

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The Aladdin spin-off, The Return Of Jafar, had been an experiment, and a highly successful one at that, and though its animation lacked the polish of the original, it looked particularly handsome for a TV special. To those following these productions from a quality standpoint, it soon became apparent that if a project was animated by either of the Canadian (Enchanted Christmas, Lion King II) or French (Duck Tales: The Movie, A Goofy Movie) satellite crews, there was a fair chance that the story would be half-decent and it would at least look good, much better than the “black marker” animation being churned out by the Japanese crews on the TV output. A new quality tier system sprang up, placing these films somewhere above the TV level of detail, albeit still someway down the ladder from the feature animation crew, even if, as with the French A Goofy Movie and The Tigger Movie (a rare step-up in real quality from Japan), the occasional attempt came extremely close to competing with their bigger cousins on the big screen when they got the chance.

Slowly but surely the quality of the animation got better, too, as the crews became accustomed to recreating the characters, and by the time Disney had consolidated their satellite studios into one, down under at DisneyToons Australia, the artists on films such as Lady And The Tramp II, Lion King 1½, Mickey’s Three Musketeers, Bambi II and Tarzan II were, no pun intended, dangerously close to aping the feature animation style. However, these films’ plots were nearly always a source of frustration and, for many, irritation, and the combination of weak re-treads and sometimes limited animation (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame II remains the nadir in this cycle) led to the much-spread “cheapquels” nickname, evoked by Pixar’s Steve Jobs himself when he spoke out about what was wrong with the Mouse House before coming on board with John Lasseter and company and shutting down the division. In many ways, they were right to do this: the films are mostly money-making franchise extensions, and the claim of feeble storytelling can mostly be upheld, especially on those films’ whose original plots had wrapped things up very nicely, thank you very much.

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Little Mermaid II was a case in point, taking Hans Andersen’s story (mermaid wants to become human, of course, up against the evil forces of the sea) and flipping it around (now human mermaid Ariel’s human daughter wants to become a mermaid, up against the evil forces of the sea). Not a lot to be going on, and the filmmakers often struggled to come up with anything but a repeat in reverse of the first film. Later films bypassed this by inserting themselves as “unseen” scenes within the originals (both Bambi and Tarzan sequels attempt to fill in “missing” moments from their respective inspirations) or taking a unique approach (Lion King 1½ positioned itself as a highly entertaining “also-quel” which ran alongside the 1994 feature from a different perspective). Ultimately, these were films being ordered from the head office, but they were infused with sincere passion by a group of artists that had really come along in terms of technique.

Rather than shut the unit down, the artists who had proved themselves should really have been given the chance to apply themselves to an original animated feature, or at least been allowed to continue genuinely sequel-worthy or character properties (I never can work out why The Rescuers’ Bernard and Bianca haven’t been seen again, or why Mickey and the gang are still in retirement). Like Lion King 1½, the Cinderella spin-off A Twist In Time had offered an alternative option to the classic fairytale’s plot, also attempting to make up for the abysmal Cinderella II, which had left a sour taste in many mouths and didn’t help the “cheapquel” accusations, and had really surprised some, pushing home just how adept the team had become. Unfortunately, if DisneyToons’ traditionally animated run was about to come to an end, it wouldn’t be on the high that Cinderella III would have allowed the unit to go out on with some dignity.

Ostensibly a similar attempt to wipe the memories of an earlier, bodged sequel effort, Ariel’s Beginning comes along as an antidote for Little Mermaid II as the last of the hand-drawn DisneyToon films. However, instead of promoting the mature, almost feature animated aspects of storytelling and animation that the writers, artists and composers have been producing in this area for the past few years, one must ask the inevitable question of what went wrong?

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While it would be easy to attack Ariel’s Beginning’s writing and animation (actually mostly outsourced to Toon City) as not being up to the levels of the 1989 movie for the sake of it, what ultimately disappoints the most with the film is the sheer lack of artistry from most departments that often doesn’t place the film much higher than Return To The Sea, even some several years later. What has happened to the strengths that were turning the heads of even long-time opponents to the sequels in favor of the DisneyToonsmiths? From my own standpoint, and while I wasn’t initially exactly thrilled that we’d be getting another Mermaid film, I remained neutral on the subject, pleased with what had been attempted with A Twist In Time and aware that this new film would be aiming to quash the memories of Return To The Sea. So, although I was actually half-expecting something pretty decent to come along, it’s an unfortunate reality that Ariel’s Beginning’s flaws have to be pointed out: the film is simply not the best that this team have proved they can do.

Of course, I’m not exactly in the target audience for this (I invited a more appropriate family member to sit and watch with me), but that’s not stopped me from loving other Disney films or even enjoying the majority of the recent sequel efforts. Return To Never-Land, Lilo And Stitch II: Stitch Has A Glitch and several of the films already mentioned…I would essentially place these on very high levels as having a surprising amount of artistic merit as well as being on all accounts as faithful to the originals as possible. But, genuinely stepping back and putting Ariel’s Beginning in context, it just doesn’t compare to anything of note in the entire Disney canon (and, it has to be said, did not play well to everyone in the target demographic at its Comic-Con debut in July). Yes, it’s obvious to have a go at the animation quality, television episode writing and over-emotionalised songs – but that’s because these elements stand out so starkly as not being up to scratch that they’re the easy targets.

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From the opening, there’s just no sense of occasion to the film. The logo as it appears on the DVD cover art…well, that’s all we get as a sign the film has begun: there’s no Walt Disney Pictures Presents, no animated swirl of water to signify something important is about to start. Nothing, just that logo, complete with the Walt Disney Pictures tag, fades up and fades down right at the start. Within the first ten minutes, there are two sequence fade outs that would have really been better placed to hold the title, particularly King Triton’s calling out in anguish after losing someone special. Just imagine how authentically majestic, exciting and purposeful placing the title a little way in would have affected the feel of the opening, as opposed to a one-off, slightly embarrassing title card that makes the first few seconds feel like the bland, half-hearted and soulless money maker that it is – get the title up, fade it out and let’s get this over with. Even The Return Of Jafar got better than this!

This feeling of cheapness is laced throughout the production. Within the opening flashback where we glimpse Ariel’s mother, the character design drops the ball by essentially using an Ariel clone as her own mother. Sure, there are a couple of extra age lines drawn around the eyes, and she has the figure of an older woman, but one might question the parentage of Ariel’s other sisters, none of whom look like Mom. The villain, Marina Del Ray (geddit?) is actually nothing more than a Morgana clone from the second film, herself simply a slimmed down Ursula, with oddly a bit of The Emperor’s New Groove’s Yzma shoved in for good measure. And, despite apparently only being set not too long before the original, the characterisations here are way off in keeping with the way we were introduced to the personalities at the beginning of the 1989 film. Indeed, the film is the result of a script overhaul, and one wonders if more passes were not needed.

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One simply has to wonder if the production was not rushed to the finished once DisneyToon’s future was made clear? There just seem to be too many “that’ll do” moments: apart from Ariel and her sisters, no-one else wears the sea-shells combination on their chests, going for some mysterious water-protective material, it seems, while the fact we’re supposedly underwater itself is often forgotten: we rarely see any bubbles apart from moments of high action where they’re really necessary. Computer coloring means that we get copious amount of light and shadow effects, but they come off as feeling a little “globby” in places, the waves of water that splash up occasionally don’t have that tactile feeling of wetness that even Return To The Sea enjoyed, going here for something that instead resembles green-colored oil. And the less said about the worst CGI prop ever, the texture-less musical box (it looks more defined on the front of the cover!) that Triton gives to Ariel’s Mother as a gift, the better: it looks as if production wrapped before any satisfactory rendering could be completed – indeed, the lines of definition increase and decrease, pop and shift about depending on how close the prop is being seen at the time. Likewise, the “magical bubbles” that bring harmony back to Atlantica by the film’s end look rather embarrassing, little CGI baubles without any transparency and coming over as cheap Christmas decorations.

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There are several questions in direction, too, particularly the opening, which is where Triton loses his wife Athena. Her position in relation to an oncoming pirate ship is well established: she’s between a rock and a hard place. But when seen from below the water’s surface, as Triton looks up helplessly, Athena is nowhere to be seen. This led to confusion not only from myself but from the younger eyes I had invited to see the film with me in order to give it fair balance. With Athena already being too closely designed to Ariel (green eyes and a blue fin instead of Ariel’s blue eyes and green fin is not enough to differ!), and having to answer the question of “is she a little girl and a big girl?”, we now faced some dubious storytelling: with the ship approaching, was Athena in danger? Was she even in the water at that point? The sequence plays out in such overwrought slow-motion that it’s a wonder she didn’t have time to flip out of the way, dive under the sea and join everyone for dinner.

They’re not, ultimately, the kind of clear visuals we expect from the Disney brand, resulting in a “what happened?” from the little girl watching with me, repeated again when Triton closes up the secret musical club entrance: “what did he do?”, I was asked. I had to question, too, the indecipherable moment when Triton’s music box became magically empowered! The end of the movie contains its fair share of “what!?” moments (the villain’s comeuppance is certainly again not clear; she disappears and it takes a post-end scene to reveal her locked up – but what’s the point of showing that when she obviously doesn’t figure in any way in the future?), but the music box is what got me. Although by some quirk the figures inside only appear when opened, the box itself never seen to possess magical powers, but in the final few minutes (before an interminable seven minutes of credits), where the box spreads its own “magic” (the magic of music, natch), is taken far too literally, with the music box’s song spreading love, joy and color around Triton’s kingdom again. This doesn’t have the intended elated sentiment: it only gives the moment the faked emotion of one of those Disney princess movie rip-offs, which is often what this film reminds of.

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In all honesty, I struggle to find anything really positive to say about the film. The relationship between Ariel and her sisters is well drawn, and demonstrates an understanding of a natural rapport between siblings, even if they’re now LA valley brats, and Marina Del Ray’s assistant Benjamin is a good counterpart to Marina’s histrionics, which are sometimes overbearing, especially in her declaration of intent song, which starts promisingly before sliding into a confused hyperactive mess that ends up mixing in so much Yzma visually and vocally that she may as well be that character. Sally Field is practically unidentifiable in the role, impressing in her animated debut, but has unfortunately been directed to overact and replicate previous Disney villainess “types” so that her actual character can’t make an impact. She’s not helped in the design stakes either: Marina’s fashion sense might be good for a few initial laughs, but ultimately her outfits are based too much on the modern world: idiosyncratic references that would never have found their way into the original film’s solid styling which stuck to its setting’s period roots.

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Even the songs, at least one of which might usually find itself lodged in the mind long after, feel like poorer retreads of other such moments from other such DTV sequels. I call them songs, but they feel more like reprises of other songs from better movies – and they’re so short, just getting going when they end. The pre-requisite Part Of Your World sequence I Remember, AKA Ariel’s Big Moment, is exactly that, but I suspect half the audience, if they’re not taken in by the scene-stealing aquatic life (can’t have those kids getting bored in the ballads, right?), over-cutting or the hysterical, hyper-operatics of a strangely over-performing Jodi Benson, will be thinking “I remember” this the first time around when it was much more subtle and effective.

Likewise, Jump In The Line provides a much needed Under The Sea jump-start number, but without providing any originality – even the song has been bought in wholesale, originally recorded by Harry Bellefonte! Can they not even be troubled to write their own stuff? And, to cap it all, it’s reprised, a second attempt an a cappella mess, only painfully highlighting again that Ariel’s friend Flounder is all wrong, in voice and character, a problem the film has with several of its established personalities. That Sebastian not-so covertly performs at a clandestine music club not only betrays his by-the-book character but also the personality that we meet at the beginning of the original film. Here, he’s essentially already the lovably stuffy royal aide that he’ll become in the 1989 film, before the character has been able to experience the arc that will see him soften up.

Also, the total lack of original villain Ursula negates her role in the original – the implication in that film being that she and Triton had “a past”, meaning that she has to be around here somewhere, chronologically, but she’s not even referenced in passing (and yet Scuttle the seagull is given a blink and you’ll miss him joke shot). The whole thing suffers from a feeling of confusion, and it’s clear that the writers haven’t picked up what makes some of these characters tick. There’s also an uncomfortable straddling of audience targets: perhaps if the team had gone all out on really just hammering this home as a story for little girls only, it might have had more heart instead of the forged beats it skimps by on, but it insists on shoehorning in the contemporary touches that will only appeal to a non-existent adult viewer: nods to The Shawshank Redemption and Dog Day Afternoon are distinctly at odds with the otherwise much younger audience the film is trying to entertain.

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And it struggles to do that, the result being that now we have a six-year old child in the family that won’t watch any (previously loved) Little Mermaid title on the shelf because “Ariel is boring”. I can’t say I blame her: inconsequential and small scale, it takes an age for anything to happen, as if the whole film has been stretched out from all but one or two scenes only, the rest of it borrowed in from the Stock Story & Character Company. A real prequel that wanted to explore what happened before Ariel came to miss her place at Sebastian’s musical festival would have set up the little mermaid’s fascination with the world above. After an event like the one depicted here, where Ariel loses a Mother, wouldn’t she be a little fascinated with those that took her? Might that not set off excitable feelings of wanting to explore that new world? There’s none of that; nothing to suggest the kind of character Ariel will grow up to be. Perhaps we’ll have to wait, Lucas-style, for yet another installment to fill in the further gaps that lazy storytelling couldn’t be bothered to elaborate upon this time around. Because this certainly doesn’t check all the right boxes in seeing “how it all started for one of Disney’s most beloved characters” in relation to the Ariel that we met in 1989.

Perhaps Ariel’s Beginning works better as a prequel to the early 1990s television series Ariel’s Undersea Adventures, with which it has more in common. But as a well-promoted, major direct to video franchise extension, and the final gulp for air from those poor unfortunate souls down under at DisneyToons, this waterlogged Beginning is wet and soggy.

Is This Thing Loaded?

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This being a Disney FastPlay disc, we can either stick around for a bombardment of Sneak Peeks or bypass them and go straight to the main menu. Previews, from their own selection, feature for the upcoming Sleeping Beauty DVD and Blu-ray Disc, the theatrical Beverly Hills Chihuahua (shoot me now, but I’m finding this funnier every time I see it), a Little Mermaid II: Return To The Sea Special Edition (hey, new game!), Tinker Bell, and the outsourced Chinese feature The Secret Of The Magic Gourd (Disney’s first international co-production effort, which seems to indicate that the company will be bringing these projects back to the US in the form of dubbed editions – good news for those interested in such properties as India’s Roadside Romeo). Also bundled in – all in 16×9, by the way – are spots for 101 Dalmatians II, My Friends Tigger And Pooh And A Musical Too, the Disney Cruise Line, DVD Games and WALL-E.

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The first of the extras proper are a couple of Deleted Scenes, presented in letterboxed 4:3 video and storyboard form, running around six minutes in Play All mode. Director Peggy Holmes (we must assume, as she goes uncredited here) speaks about why Sebastian Waking The Girls was cut (and goes some way to explain why the character was misunderstood by the filmmakers) and presents an earlier, talkier version of the Ariel Follows Flounder scene. In Music & More, Disney Song Selection is the now-standard karaoke option, where the songs from the movie are accompanied with on-screen lyrics, though the non-original Jump In The Line is conspicuous by its absence.

The Mermaid Discovery Vanity Game gives participants the chance to find out more about Ariel and her sisters by peeking around their vanity mirrors. While clicking on many of the options actually leads to little more than the prop shaking around a bit, there is a bit of fun to be had in the girls’ journals, however contemporary they may be. Finding Flounder in one of the vanities allows the player to find out whose profile they most likely fit, from Ariel, Sebastian, Attina or Triton.

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In Backstage Disney, Splashdance: A Dancer’s Adventures Under The Sea again puts the spotlight on director Peggy Holmes. While she seems the nicest of people, and sweetly admits that “my background is in dance, I have never directed an animated feature before and I really don’t even know how to draw”, could I venture forth and perhaps suggest a reason why the film’s visual storytelling isn’t quite up to snuff? Or are you getting my drift? There’s a bunch of talk about how animation and choreography are very similar in a lot of ways, and at the end of the day these are both mediums that when successful tell a story visually, but I wouldn’t get a designer to actually build me a car, and though this piece explains why the dance moves in the club look particularly natural, it also suggests more time spent on story and visual clarity might be the thing to go for, if there’s a next time. Running just over seven minutes, the featurette is presented in letterboxed 4:3 video.

Finally, The Little Mermaid: Under The Sea And Behind The Scenes On Broadway featurette takes a fortuitously well-timed look at the new musical version of the original 1989 telling of Hans Andersen’s story. Forgoing the natural storybook feel of Beauty And The Beast or the avant garde take on The Lion King, this Mermaid musical, which was always going to face a heck of a problem trying to evoke an undersea kingdom on a stage, very unfortunately looks more than a bit cheap and tacky. Rather than a big, Broadway experience, the sets and costumes look more like theme park attractions, and this ten minute peek at the show does a good job at slightly disguising the fact that Sierra Boggess’ legs haven’t been folded up inside a fin, the show opting instead for her to wear some kind of shimmery skirt and most of the publicity shots somewhat deceptively falling short of showing anything below Ariel’s navel.

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There isn’t much of the show on show either, being more of an introduction to Boggess, masquerading as a behind the scenes as she wanders backstage to bump into her cast mates. The tunics they have to wear under their seashells don’t do a lot for them, looking like they have seriously wrinkly skin! I get the feeling there are going to be a lot of disappointed children in the audiences and that Disney are not going to see the same kind of success that kept those previous animated adaptations running for so long. The Mermaid franchise has never been as robust as an Aladdin or Lion King…could it be, with Ariel’s Beginning and this new show, that they’ve now bled the brand dry?

Case Study:

Giving it all the glitz and glamor they can, Ariel’s Beginning comes to disc in a shiny embossed slipcase, designed much in the same way as all of Disney’s other recent animated releases, with the title slap-bang in the middle of the front of the half-baked cover that only shows three of Ariel’s six sisters, for some reason; the “Every tale has a beginning” tag only plays up Disney’s Star Wars and Batman Begins prequel ambitions. Inside, a chapter insert basically repeats the back of the sleeve on its reverse, there’s a booklet of advertisements, and a Blu-ray/Movie Rewards fold-out that also promotes The Little Mermaid Broadway musical, which does have a pretty neat logo!

Ink And Paint:

The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning would be near to demo material if the animation weren’t so expressionless and blandly colored. The original 1989 movie was the last to be completed on film, before computer animation production systems allowed for cleaner scanning of the artists’ drawings and digital ink and paint. So there’s understandably a lack of film grain that was inherent in The Little Mermaid that also takes away some of the familiarity to the images. The amazingly vibrant transfer doesn’t help mask any deficiencies in the animation: it’s all super-clear warts and all. As usual with these direct to video transfers, I found blowing the picture up onto my home theater display gave things more of a theatrical feel, but not quite enough to disguise some of the ham-fisted cartooning going on.

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As often found in these endeavors, the secondary characters come off best: perhaps a combination of them being broader to pose and the characters’ lesser screen requirements, giving animators more production time to hone their performances. A highlight here is Benjamin, Marina’s light-hearted and laid-back assistant (you can’t call him a “henchman”, the film isn’t interested in actually giving him anything to do apart from act as a sounding board) and, Yzma comparisons aside, Marina herself is probably the best animated character on show, even if a lot can be hidden in overacting villainesses. Banding is noticeable on larger blocks of color, particularly Ariel’s hair and Benjamin, but nevertheless, every cliché looks perfect on this disc.

Scratch Tracks:

As usual, probably to tempt the home theater crowd sitting on the fence, Disney has elected to pack in a very respectable DTS track alongside the equally accomplished Dolby 5.1 mix. Both almost reach feature quality levels, even if the ambience of the sea isn’t evoked as richly as has been heard in Ariel’s ocean in the past, and the soundtrack is accomplished as one would expect from the Studio. French and Spanish subs and dubs are optional.

Final Cut:

You know a film hasn’t worked when the abiding memory the target audience comes away with from its disc is from the previews: cries of “Chihuahua!” easily outweighed any attempts to discuss the film with the little girl I had “borrowed” for the afternoon. I’m sure it’s no surprise to find John Lasseter about as far away from this release as possible too. It’s a shame that he’s come into the company to turn around the animation division and will have to see Ariel’s Beginning come out under his watch, and a double shame that this lackluster excuse for printing dollar bills will be the final traditionally hand-drawn effort to emerge from the ever-improving DisneyTooners. With follow ups to a great many classic films that often surprised even the naysayers, that they seem to have taken a giant leap back in terms of quality does not do the unit justice, and only arms those against these spin-offs with ample ammunition. I actually wanted to sit and find Ariel’s Beginning a pleasant diversion; I was looking forward to a final hurrah from an often beleaguered part of the Disney Company and was so hoping they’d go out on a high note with a tie-in to a film that arguably helped to confirm the DTV craze in the first place. The only hurrah I (and I think my fidgety little friend) did get out of it, though, was when it ended.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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