It’s a pity that theaters today don’t feature more films like The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, Disney’s recent straight-to-DVD-release. Seeing it recently with my youngest daughter at an advanced screening in Dallas made me think it would have done modestly well on the big screen. We are hardly overrun with wholesome, entertaining films crafted for children. Running approximately 70 minutes and lacking the sort of lavish special effects we have come to expect in animated films, Ariel’s Beginning focuses successfully on story, character, humor, and particularly music.
Ariel’s Beginning is a prequel to Disney’s beloved The Little Mermaid (1989) and its direct-to-DVD follow-up, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000), and recounts how Ariel (voiced again by Jodi Benson) comes to meet her friend Flounder and how Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright reprises his role as the Jamaican-accented crab) comes to be Court Composer. The film begins with Ariel as a child, enjoying a blissful existence in Atlantica, where her parents — King Triton and Queen Athena — rule a peaceful kingdom in which music is an expression of joy and unity. But Atlantica’s happiness was not to last. In the only truly frightening scene in the film, a pirate ship crashes into the kingdom and kills Queen Athena. Inconsolable, King Triton issues a prohibition against all music.
Living a quiet life with her six sisters, Ariel wanders off one day and comes upon Flounder, who is acting out one of his daydreams about being a musical star. Hearing him create not only his own musical riffs but also the cheers of an adoring audience, Ariel is intrigued. But just then, a school of spying swordfish — Triton’s police force — arrive and accuse Ariel of violating the King’s prohibition.
Concerned about his daughter, Triton places her under the watchful and heavily made-up eye of Marina Del Ray (in a wonderful vocal performance by Sally Field), the conniving assistant angling for Sebastian’s Chief-of-Staff job. She snaps that she wants to crush the crustacean into a crab cake” and then sings about how she needs “just one mistake” on Sebastian’s part to open the way for her to seize the power she covets.
When Ariel follows Flounder to the secret Catfish Club, she discovers a host of undersea creatures performing rousing song-and-dance routines. At the center of the entire operation is Sebastian, the king’s trusted servant, charged with keeping the kingdom free of music. The musical numbers, including Calypso standards “Shake Shake Shake Senora (Jump in the Line)” and “Man Smart Woman Smarter,” are a great deal of fun.
Given the King’s unyielding stance, Sebastian’s role in the clandestine club, and Marina’s envy, we know that trouble is ahead. When the musical culprits — now including not only Ariel but her six sisters, as well — are exposed, Triton is furious and imprisons them all. Never one to remain silent in the face of what she perceives as injustice, Ariel objects to her father, “What’s wrong with listening to music?”
To the film’s credit, it treats that question as something more than a rhetorical one. Music is hardly innocuous. Because the film never treats Triton as an ogre, the film takes seriously the power — at times a very painful power — of music. Ariel’s Beginning is a musical not in the same way that many other Disney animated film are musicals. Here music encapsulates important themes: music expresses sorrow and joy, acts as the trigger for welcome and unwelcome memories, and even functions as the sign of a healthy political order. At one point Ariel herself sings: “I remember music, I remember her, and I remember love.”
Fortunately for fans of The Little Mermaid, the return trip to Ariel’s story will provide no pain and many memories to be treasured.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.