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?
John Lasseter was appointed the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Amination Studios in 2006, where he oversaw the studio’s output. Maybe it’s a coincidence that, shortly after he took the helm, Disney stopped production on animated home-video releases. Pixar’s dominance at the box office had sent a clear message to the brass at Disney that America’s new preference was for computer animation, not that old-fashioned ink-and-pen stuff. Lasseter would ultimately oversee the releases of four animated home-release projects, with the first three performing relatively strongly. Based on the final product, it’s oddly prescient that The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning would be the end of it all.
What’s going on here?
When last we left Ariel and the folks of Atlantica, Ariel had started a family with Eric and was dragged along on the misadventures of her daughter, which closely mirrored those of her own. The second Little Mermaid felt listless and mostly like a retread of the original film with hardly anything new to offer. Ariel’s Beginning is a prequel to the original film, and for a film with a title like Ariel’s Beginning, you would expect more enlightening information to come forth about its protagonist.
The film does give the spotlight to Ariel’s mother, Athena, for the first time in this franchise, opening in medias res to her early days of love and courtship with King Triton. The royal duo is so in love that they create a clamshell music box. They’re so in love, in fact, that Athena fails to notice the ship barreling toward her. She is squished.
In the aftermath, King Triton bans music of any kind, including humming.
Yes, this film is a G-rated Footloose ripoff.
Ariel discovers that a small group of fish have their own underground dance club and she rebels against her father’s rules. Meanwhile, Ariel and her sisters live under the tutelage of Marina Del Ray (yes, really), who serves at Triton’s right hand but has grander designs to rule the kingdom. She is this film’s version of Ursula, with the clear distinction that she’s inferior to Ursula in every conceivable way. But at least she has a weird manatee sidekick named Benjamin.
She tattles on Ariel, Ariel gets punished, Ariel breaks free and ventures out of town with the rogue fish to live a life of music. Everything comes to a head, and Marina is defeated and arrested.
How much of the original is preserved?
Every bad prequel focuses its intentions on some aspect of the original film, hoping to answer questions that nobody ever asked. Solo: A Star Wars Story did this with Han’s last name, and there was something about some dice hanging in the Millennium Falcon. This is what Ariel’s Beginning traffics in, never aspiring to be an interesting exploration of life under the sea or those who inhabit it. But at least we now know why the hot crustacean band performed so energetically in the original film’s “Under the Sea” sequence.
As if the film wasn’t already a lazy riff on Footloose, it’s also a lazy riff on the original film. Take out the music subplot and replace it with the human world, and you have 1989’s The Little Mermaid with all of the interesting villainy taken out.
Sally Field inexplicably voices Marina Del Ray, who very well may be the worst Disney villain of the 21st century. As if she didn’t suck enough already, she’s not even beaten by Ariel; rather, Sebastian traps her in a log or something. Field is an extremely capable and likable actress, but this material is many, many nautical miles below her.
Does this ruin the original film?
If Ariel’s Beginning were the first sequel to The Little Mermaid, it would be slightly more forgivable. But since Disney ran the IP into the ground – we haven’t even touched on the television series, or the godawful live musical adaptation in 2019 – the franchise has only gone downhill since birth.
For the longest time, the Little Mermaid franchise has stayed dormant, until Disney rebirthed it to be the latest of its live-action adaptations. Maybe a restart could be beneficial for the film because its subsequent offerings have been — to put it gently — forgettable.