Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
It may seem like a far-off memory now, given the abundance of material to compare it to, but 1989’s The Little Mermaid changed Disney forever and was essentially the catalyst for the Disney Renaissance. Before Ron Clements and John Musker’s sophomore feature, the animation company was in dire straits after a string of forgettable and expensive releases throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, only six feature animated films were released throughout the ’70s, and only five in the ’80s — an unthinkably far cry from the studio’s level of output today. And it’s hard to say which of those films has the greatest cultural footprint; many of them are hardly even considered as hidden or underappreciated gems. (The real winner, of course, is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but that film is only half-animated and wasn’t animated by Disney.) All of this is to say that, given Disney’s renewed fervor for home releases in the late 1990s, and its standing among loyal fans at the time, a sequel to The Little Mermaid was all but inevitable.
What’s going on here?
Within the first six minutes of The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, a baby is dangled over the side of a ship above the jaws of a shark. As if that image wasn’t frightening enough, the baby in question is none other than Ariel and Eric’s daughter, Melody. The one doing the dangling is Morgana, the sister of Ursula (more on that in a bit), who not only wants revenge but the throne of King Triton, which Ursula failed to procure. Because Disney would never be so dark as to kill the baby of one of its princesses right off the bat, Morgana’s plan fails and the royal parents forbid their daughter from ever going out of their reach. (Sound familiar?)
Fast-forward 12 years later, and Melody has developed a fondness for — you guessed it — the sea. She finds a mysterious amulet with her name on it and is promised some answers by Morgana, who tells her Triton’s trident is actually hers and was stolen. She gives Melody the gift of fins, Triton does the same for Ariel and everything comes to a head as everyone confronts one another. I’m sure there are some details missing, but after this point my eyes had mostly glossed over and I was fighting the sandman. We’ll eventually return to the world of Atlantica (which will never not sound strange when you hear people saying it out loud) eventually, so hopefully this doesn’t come back to bite me in the tailfin.
How much of the original is preserved?
If you couldn’t tell, the plot of Return to the Sea is essentially a mirror of the original film, with Melody playing the role of the rebellious pre-teen. If you need any further evidence, consider that Pat Carroll, who so memorably voiced Ursula, returns to voice her sister. Thank god the filmmakers at least had the good sense to cut out any romantic subplot with Melody (again, she’s 12 years old).
The rest of the voice cast returns, with the exceptions of Prince Eric (Rob Paulsen, ugh) and Flounder (Cam Clarke). The film goes to great lengths to provide visual callbacks to the original film, including Ariel blowing her hair out of her face, Melody emerging from the sea with her back arched and her hair flipping, and another extended bit with Sebastian and Chef Louis.
The number of original songs in Return to the Sea are probably the scarcest we’ve covered so far. Aside from the obligatory opening song, the film surprisingly has none throughout the first 30 minutes (and this is only a 75-minute film). Not that I’m complaining though, because the songs we do get are instantly forgettable. Perhaps the strangest aspect is that, at several points where we’ve been conditioned to expect a song – like when Melody meets Morgana – the film simply continues on. If Disney was going to replicate the original film to such a fine degree, it could have benefitted at least from doing so in the music department as well.
Does this ruin the original film?
I haven’t commented on this yet, but there have been several entries throughout this project already that I won’t be covering because they technically don’t qualify as movies. As much as I would’ve loved to cover Hercules: Zero to Hero — and other similar projects — it’s only classified as a movie because Disney scraped together three episodes of its failed TV show and wrapped them around a loose narrative.
The Little Mermaid II thankfully doesn’t feel like one of those Frankensteined films in that it weaves together a continuous narrative. But it feels very much like a Disney Channel film, one that would be promoted to high heaven and premiere on TV on a Friday night around this time of year. The whole thing just oozes of Disney’s cash-grab mentality.
Given its utterly unimaginative script, I can only envision the box-office disappointment this would have been if it was released in theaters. We’ve covered some genuine stinkers in this project so far, but I don’t think a wider trench has existed between the original film and its sequel than in this instance, especially when you consider The Little Mermaid‘s long-standing cultural legacy.