And you know what's absolutely dumbfounding? Out of all those years and all those movies, Ariel's Beginning is the one and only actual, strict-definition prequel. That's weird, right? For the company that invented, pioneered, and then humped to death the "midquel" to have never once in all that time played around with something that already existed and had been used frequently for many years is just peculiar. Particularly since whatever problems are baked in to the very notion of a prequel (that we already know how things are obliged to turn out for the characters because of the later plot we see them involved in, and thus there's no real possibility for tension) are only exacerbated by the midquel form, which is annoying for other reasons as well.
But I digress, and that's without having anything started to digress from. Ariel's Beginning announces its prequeling intentions from the very start, though honestly, what "beginning" we're meant to be witnessing is a bit murky. Ariel's conception? No, though it would answer questions about the reproductive cycle of merpeople that would be at least moderately interesting, particularly to the authors of Little Mermaid fan fiction. The incident that caused Ariel to be fascinated by human culture, setting up the primary conflict that animates The Little Mermaid? Not in the least, which frankly surprised me: even a third of the way through the prequel, I genuinely thought they were leaving that door open. Whatever mysterious backstory is cryptically alluded to by the sea witch Ursula in the original film, as she's grousing about past wrongs? Even less so, which isn't a surprise at all, though it's what I'd have personally been the most interested in seeing.
It is, in other words, virtually the same plot as the first half of The Little Mermaid, with "love of music" subbed in for "love of the humans living above the water", and vastly lower stakes brought about by having a far less ambitious and interesting villain. In place of the mad octopus-woman Ursula, Ariel's Beginning makes do with resentful governess Marina Del Rey (Sally Field), who just wants to oust Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright, sounding indescribably old for the part he created two decades prior) and take over as the kingdom's chief of staff. Without magic, since she is not a magic user, and thus infinitely more boring (okay, fair's fair: it's not because she has no magic that she's dull; cf. Cruella de Vil. But it doesn't help).
The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, which really did feel in most key ways like a find + replace was done on the original script and the protagonist given a palette swap. At least the emphases of Ariel's Beginning are somewhat different: there's no "I want to live above/below the water!" body dysmorphia, the villain is totally different (in a bad direction; but at least different), considerable focus is aimed towards Ariel's six sisters (who even have different personalities, though all of them are reductive: the horny one! the image-obsessed one! the sarcastic one!). It still hinges on an adolescent knowing more than her parent and teaching them the error of their ways, which continues to be a moral lesson that I am not 100% okay with. And its value as a prequel is limited almost solely to the fact that it enables a mermaid version of Ariel and a depiction of her little fish friend Flounder (Parker Goris) that isn't the exaggeratedly disgusting new character design he sported as an adult in Return to the Sea; one suspects that if there was literally even one day unaccounted-for in the chronology of The Little Mermaid, they'd have been just as happy going the midquel route, so thank God for small favors. Otherwise, all that gets established are how Sebastian ended up court composer, and how Ariel and Flounder met, two questions that can hardly be considered urgent by any rational standard.
It also establishes that Ariel's mother looks terrifying like a version of her daughter that has been subtly but horribly mis-drawn by a fan artist. Having stared at her for what seems like hours, I can't figure out what it is: the cheekbones? Anyway, it's like finding that your spouse has been replaced by an almost perfect alien replica: you can't say why it's wrong, only that it is, in some quiet but cosmically horrifying way.
Nor is it the only place where the film seems to out-and-out forget that it takes place under the sea, though thankfully, most of the examples are limited to the film's cramped, unimaginative visuals, and not the script.
There's a lot of disinterest going around, at any rate. The air is leaking from every corner: the plot's refusal to be about anything; the anemic new songs (including what might very well be the worst villain song in any Disney DTV film); Marina's total lack of any personality not given to her by a tiring assortment of wardrobe changes.
This woman, I hasten to remind you, is a mermaid
Even more damningly, the fact that the main song that serves as a showstopper and a spine for the musical landscape - "Part of Your World" and "Under the Sea" in one package - is a cover of "Jump in the Line". Which, minimally, makes the question of when and where the Little Mermaid pictures take place even harder to parse, while speaking to an utter barrenness of inspiration. Not that "Jump in the Line" doesn't fit in the same musical universe as "Under the Sea", but... when you've already got "Under the Sea", shouldn't you at least try to give that little calypso crab something to do?
At least the film has some compensations visually. True, the sense of unbridled imagination present in every movement of the original film is gone - the joy of animating in a three-dimensional underwater space is barely present. Also, there are crabs in a couple of scenes, and they're realistic - handsomely drafted, but when we've established that crabs in this universe look like little cartoon men with cute, mutable faces, we should not be subjected to actual arthropods.
It's not hard to imagine a child being entranced by all of this shininess, and ultimately, that's all that's going on here; distracting kids for an hour and a quarter. It's too bad that this couldn't be accomplished with a rich, thematically deep narrative carried by resonant characters - or at least the free-for-all weirdness of Cinderella III: A Twist in Time - but there's no value in making that complaint at this stage of the game. The reign of Disney sequels ended as it began: cheapening classic characters and assuming the worst of its target audience's intelligence and dignity. But at least it looked a whole lot plusher in 2008 than in 1994. At least some evolution in the direction of artistry happened in all that long march of mediocrity.