I recently lost a bet with my friend Mark Diba, and now he’s making me watch seven dreadful movies produced by DisneyToon Studios. Follow along with my decent into madness HERE.
The most amazing quality of these silly DisneyToon movies is how utterly devoid of content they are, and it’s a quality that makes them extremely difficult to write about. Even a movie as offensively terrible as the one I’ve just watched are so completely empty that there’s almost nothing that feels worth discussing. It’s a big part of the reason I resent referring to these things as “movies” – they’re fraudulent in a way that is unusual for even the worst films. We can talk about many of the famously bad movies out there because they are still filled with ideas, even if those ideas are bad or mishandled. The DisneyToon movies have nothing to say. They are anti-content; vacuous chasms that are empty in such a way that they seem to distort space-time in a manner not unlike a black hole.
That brings us to The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning.
This one hurt me. All of these movies have been unbelievably bad and difficult to watch, but this one finds a way to dig deeper than rock bottom. And the worst part? The movie’s so goddamned empty that I’m struggling to find anything I can even discuss.
I guess I should start with the synopsis. The movie starts out when Ariel and her sisters are very young. Atlantica is a paradise and everyone is filled with joy and song, and its citizens are even allowed to visit the surface. On one fateful day, though, pirates kill Athena – Ariel’s mother and Triton’s wife – by… ramming a ship into her, apparently? (The movie cuts away in the most hilariously sloppy fashion so as to not upset the two-year-olds its babysitting). Triton is distraught, and in his grief he outlaws all music in the kingdom.
Ten years later, Ariel finds a secret night club and gets into a fight with her father about it. That’s it. That’s as high as the central conflict escalates in this movie. Somehow it still manages to last for nearly 80 minutes.
We often point to the Star Wars prequels as the ubiquitous example of why prequels are an inherently bad idea – it’s creating backwards set-ups to things that have already paid off and relying heavily on masturbatory fan service of seeing familiar characters arriving at the status quo we know from the original work. It relies entirely on foregone conclusions which not only undermines the narrative weight of the story being told, but also often lessens the original work by over-explaining unnecessary details. The small handful of prequels that have ever really worked, only work because they’re completely separate from the original stories, allowing them the freedom to be more than supplemental backstory.
With all that in mind, Ariel’s Beginning may be the most prequel-ey prequel of all time. The movie is so full of winking references to the original movie, that there’s basically no content besides that. This is a film that goes out of its way to explain even the origins of the band that performs “Under the Sea,” and it’s all stupid and insipid and provides nothing as value as either a standalone story or as a supplement to the original film.
It’s a sequel in reverse. Instead of heightening the conflict of the original film, the movie takes the essential conflict – Ariel and her father have a disagreement of ideals, leading Ariel to rebel against him before they finally reconcile their differences – and lessens it so that the stakes are so low as to be nonexistent. Instead of dreaming of the surface world, making an ill-advised deal with a witch, and becoming human, Ariel instead wants music and excitement in her life and sneaks out of the house to a secret night club. This whole movie has stakes comparable to the first act of The Little Mermaid.
And the most amazing thing is that as much as this film is backwardly aping the original movie, none of it informs the story of the original in any meaningful way. It goes through the same beats, but it never uses that to explore how the dynamic we see in the original film came to be, meaning it fails even in the fundamentally flawed goal it sets out to achieve. If you’re going to show us the defining moment of Triton’s life, then explore the way his grief led him to a hatred of humans and a separation of the ocean from the surface world, don’t make up some silly parallel story about music and completely ignore anything that might carry thematic weight. Similarly, if you’re going to have a villain who has the same essential motives as Ursula and is even visually referencing her, why not just make the character Ursula? Yeah, that would have been bad too, but it would be bad in the way you expect prequels to be, bad in a way that at least has something to say. This has all the backwards fan-service problems of your standard prequel, but none of the attempts to explore the ideas of the original film in a deeper way, making it the most worthless possible prequel that could ever exist.
That’s the only way you can describe these movies: “worthless.” There is nothing of worth in any of them. They are intentionally scrubbed clean of any ideas so as to be perfect, non-threatening diversions for young children. It’s something I mentioned in my first review in this series, but this is the most insidious quality of the films. Art and entertainment made for children has the enormous responsibility of shaping minds and introducing kids to concepts that inform their understanding of the world. It’s a safe space for them to explore new ideas and to learn, but these movies suppress that desire, instead choosing to pacify and anesthetize. They encourage children not to think, which is the worst possible thing children’s media can do.