While Disney has taken some criticism for the quality of some (not all, but certainly some) of its direct-to-video animated sequels, the studio seems to have taken this to heart. Although these DTV films still aren't an improvement over the originals, the level of quality has been on the rise recently, as demonstrated by "Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning", the third film (the second was "Little Mermaid: Return to the Sea") in the franchise. This time around, we get a prequel to the original "Little Mermaid", which also brings back original voice actor Jodi Benson to voice Ariel.
The story opens in the underwater kingdom of Atlantica, where joy flows through the kingdom like...well, like water. However, tragedy strikes when the Queen Athena is separated from the group when a pirate ship rushes into the area and an accident occurs. King Triton (Jim Cummings) is sent into a deep sorrow by the loss, and withdraws from the kingdom, taking the step of banning music, as it reminds him of his lost love.
A decade later has passed and music is still outlawed in the kingdom. Ariel has become a teenager and is watched over by Marina Del Ray (Sally Field), a grumpy nanny who'd rather be anywhere else but watching over Ariel and the other youngsters. Her goal is to bump Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) the crab out of the way and become the advisor to the king. Marina even has a sidekick of her own, the bizarre Benjamin (Jeff Bennett), who - I think - is supposed to be a turtle.
Meanwhile, Ariel runs across new friend Flounder (Parker Goris), who - as Ariel soon finds out - hangs out in a secret underwater music club where the tunes go on, despite the kingdom's laws against it. Needless to say, she gets busted and both see and Sebastian get in serious trouble with the Triton - and Marina takes over Sebastian's duties.
The film is certainly targeted towards the younger set - there's danger, but never anything that will really scare young kids. Unfortunately, the story is on the thin side, and struggles to fill 70 minutes or so + credits. Ariel finding about the secret club, Marina taking over and Triton having a change of heart just didn't keep my interest enough for the running time, although viewers in the target audience may feel differently. The animation quality is an improvement over many other direct-to-video titles, although falls rather short of feature film quality. The songs are hit-and-miss, but generally entertain. The voice acting is also above average - it's nice to see some of the original voice actors brought back, and Sally Field makes an enjoyable villain.
Overall, this direct-to-video sequel wasn't dazzling, but it was a mildly pleasant surprise and most will likely find it an enjoyable enough family film.
VIDEO: "Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen by Disney. This is a very nice presentation that really doesn't display any major concerns. While the animation as detailed as that of a theatrical release, the film's animation still remained crisp and clear on this presentation. A few minor traces of artifacting were spotted, but no edge enhancement or print flaws were seen. Colors remained bright and well-saturated, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: "Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning" is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 on this release. The film's sound design is about as tame as one would expect from this sort of movie, with the surrounds really only coming in infrequently to offer some mild ambience and reinforcement of the songs. Audio quality was perfectly fine, with crisp sound effects and clear, well-recorded dialogue.
EXTRAS: 2 deleted scenes, karaoke option for the songs in the film, ""The Little Mermaid: Under the Sea and Behind the Scenes on Broadway" (taking a look behind-the-scenes at the Broadway production), "Splashdance" featurette and "Mermaid Discovery Vanity Game".
Final Thoughts: Overall, this direct-to-video sequel wasn't dazzling, but it was a mildly pleasant surprise and most will likely find it an enjoyable enough family film. The DVD offers very good video quality, fine audio and a few minor extras. Recommended.
The Film B