The Return of Jafar is absolutely rotten with it, and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas needlessly re-runs the original's thematic arc, though not its conflict, but that's the worst of it.
Then, in 2000, we meet The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea. Balls, even the title promises that this one is going to be, as much of a retread as possible; only this time, instead of headstrong teenage mermaid Ariel (Jodi Benson) fighting to become a human, the sequel is about Ariel's headstrong tween daughter Melody (Tara Strong née Charendoff) fighting to become a mermaid. Though at first she just thinks of it as a yearning to go to The Sea, which is currently separated from her by a huge seawall that Ariel had built to keep the girl safe from the evil sea witch. The other evil sea witch.
Hell, "retread" is being generous. This is a gods-be-damned carbon copy. In this film, just like in 1989's The Little Mermaid:
-The villain is a half-woman, half-octopus voiced by Pat Carroll, motivated by a desire to steal King Triton's (Kenneth Mars) trident and rule the ocean.
-She has a pair of unpleasant sea creatures with a themed name as her henchmen (rays Cloak & Dagger, which names I must point out are not any kind of ocean pun, like Flotsam & Jetsam the eels were). She also has a sarcastic shark ally (Clancy Brown), so that, at least, breaks the template a bit.
-The main character sneaks off frequently to do the one thing that her parent forbids, and to commemorate her rebellion, collects mementos of the world she is specifically forbidden to explore.
-Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright) is made the main character's babysitter, a task at which he is incompetent and which he views with almost physical terror.
-The main character is talking with Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett), when a chance comment reminds her of her previous obligations. She responds by saying "Oh no, the ____".
-The villain tricks the main character into making a deal to change her body shape. This deal is limited to a very specific time frame.
-The villain acquires the trident and begins incapacitating all of the good characters. Prince Eric (Rob Paulsen) comes to rescue, aiming a ship straight for her (though in this film, he fails).
The degree to which the screenwriters cared about hiding their contempt for the whole affair can be best demonstrated by the fact that the new villain is introduced with the entirely slick, writerly, not-at-all mechanical line, "*gasp* Ursula's crazy sister!"
Ariel and Melody even look exactly the same.
At a certain point, the minute changes made to the scenario throughout the opening acts force Return to the Sea to start blazing its own narrative trail: since 12-year-old Melody can't go chasing a love interest (though she does have run-ins with cute boys, one human and one merman), Morgana - for that is the name of Ursula's crazy sister, and by the way, if you've been confused how the heck this new family history for Ursula is meant to fit in with the implications of the first movie, well, don't look at me for answers - tells her to retrieve Triton's trident, which can only be removed from its stand by a member of his bloodline. This, then, triggers a pair of quests: Melody hunting from one of the ice caps (probably the Arctic, because it's closer to whichever vaguely Atlantic coastline houses this franchise) with the bitterly unamusing pair of cowardly adventurers "Titanic" Tip (Max Casella), a penguin, and "Daring" Dash, a walrus (oh, so it's the penguin and walrus ice cap, got it) sort of like Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King filtered through Ritalin-addicted mania and a feverish hatred for children; while Ariel, turned back into mermaid by her father, searches far and wide under the sea for her daughter, with the help of her old friend Flounder (Cam Clarke), whom she has not seen these twelve years, ever since building that seawall. In an unfortunate bid to the narrative reality that twelve years have gone be - twelve years that, in actual reality, would have left most of the cast dead of extreme old age - the filmmakers have redesigned Flounder as a grown-up. They have made him ugly.
Excruciating storytelling boondoggle that it is, it would be nice to say that Return to the Sea has any kind of positive element to it at all, but that is not the case, unless it is that the drawings are, by and large, attractive: like the other projects worked on by Walt Disney Animation Canada (who collaborated with the Australian wing of the studio in this project), you would think to look at stills that God was in His heaven and all right with the world. For they are colorful, energetic things, with rich texture-
In short, while it is a massive step down from the original film, it's also just damned unpleasant on its own terms; and this, at least, is not always true of these Disney sequels, which occasionally have a certain harmless charm about them if you can perform the mental leap necessary to forget where they came from. The new characters, all of them, are hard to like (for Morgana herself is an unworthy villain, too wacky and too eager to remind us that she's not as capable and thus not as threatening as Ursula was), the animation is blocky and unappealing, the story is padded and aimless even at a mere 72 minutes). Somehow, I still think the worst thing of all might be the songs: all of them written by sometime spouses Michael Silversher and Patty Silversher, children's music specialist who had done a good deal of work in television prior to this (theirs were the theme songs to both Adventures of the Gummi Bears and Tale Spin), getting their first full-on musical here: the results are ghastly across the board, starting with a strained "the whole cast sings exposition" ditty called "Down to the Sea", a tortured attempt to do something far more ambitious than the movie wants; but the worst part of the soundtrack is absolutely "Tip and Dash", a clamorous piece of nonsense that has the unspeakable bad faith to try to convince us that the lines "Titanic Tip and Daring Dash / Adventurers slash explorers" belong anywhere outside of a wastebasket.
What this all adds up to is a truly joy-starved experience, which strips good characters of their souls, telling a story of profoundly little importance in an ugly, noisy, busy manner. If Return to the Sea does anything at all valuable, it is only that it casts into stark relief just how all-round acceptable things like The Lion King II: Simba's Pride or Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas really were in their turns. For while they are all unnecessary, greedy cash-ins, at least most of the early ones made some kind of good-faith attempt to work by the degraded, low-stakes standards of children's entertainment. But Return to the Sea cannot even clear this low bar for success: it is a maddeningly stupid, inert piece of storytelling that makes a hash of everything noble and good about one of Disney's all-time most important classics. Setting aside the nuclear holocaust that is Belle's Magical World, it's the first of the Disney sequels that's just plain bad, not bad because it can't live up to an impossible standard, or bad because it's a cheaply-made project that looks cheap, but bad because it reflects an unacceptable degree of not giving a shit about making a movie that's even halfway watchable. And the fact that it has the temerity to wear the title of one of the great animated musicals of the 20th Century just makes its sins that much harder to stomach.
Have you helped Tim fight cancer? Donate to the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser & Review Auction! The fundraiser ends 18 June, 2015!