14 November 2012

DISNEY SEQUELS: NOW I'LL BE CIRCLING IN CIRCLES ALL NIGHT

One of the things that gets thrown at the Disney sequels frequently, and admitted to even by those who've managed to find some way of defending them as a concept, is that they frequently serve as very little other than retreads of the original with a new batch of semi-marketable characters. What has surprised me, thus far in our little intermittent retrospective of the form, is how infrequently it happened in the early stages of the DTV sequels: 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.




Obviously, there are sometimes similarities between parents and children; but this isn't "similarity", it's a freaking palette swap.

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.

When Return to the Sea is merely aping a very great original, it's awful because it's so impossibly easy to compare the two and find the new one wanting; when it is obliged to establish its own narrative identity, it's even worse because the new material is so carelessly stupid and dumbed-down: nothing about Tip and Dash ever ceases to be annoying as all hell for even a few moments, their whole presence in the film an obvious nod towards marketing - they feel like an especially disposable afternoon TV cartoon welded onto a much slower-paced film - and while they are much the worst thing in the movie, they are hardly the only bad thing; certainly the way that Melody becomes increasingly buffeted about by narrative contrivance makes it harder and harder to harbor any kind of positive feelings towards her. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel's quest to become human is the thrust of the narrative, and it makes us invested in her fate; here, Melody's somewhat foggier desire to be a mermaid (if the original is, ultimately, a fantasy, then the sequel is, ultimately, about little girls playing dress-up) never emerges as such a prime, moving force, and she's never more than a pawn in other people's conflicts. And with the second half of Return to the Sea serving as little more than a pointless errand she's running for a character whom we already know to be evil, it's next to impossible to seriously invest in the drama to any real degree, for it is too readily seen for what it is, just a waiting game for the big showdown.

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-

-at times beautiful lighting-

-and even the odd special effect.

The drafting isn't perfect - there's something distinctly unpleasant about all of their eyes, and King Triton seems to have posed an unusual problem for his animation team, spending as much time off-model as he does on - but on the whole, it looks good in stills. What does not look good at all is the animation itself, which is particularly stiff and unwieldy, even within the context of Disney's television animation studios: the fluidity and smoothness of the original film is particularly glaring for its absence here, since not only can the characters be directly compared (particularly Ariel, a masterwork for supervisors Glen Keane and Mark Henn who moves like a broken marionette now), but the underwater setting that opened up so many possibilities for the animators on the '89 film is barely exploited by their successors at all: other than the presence of overly-shiny bubbles, there's often no real indication that underwater scenes are underwater at all, to judge from the mass and carriage of the characters.

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.

5 comments:

Sssonic said...

Right off the bat the premise for this movie pissed me off; you can't just flip the script of the original's central conflict for Ariel's daughter, because taken on its own terms it doesn't make sense; why would Ariel ever forbid her daughter from going to the Sea, when she herself knows and loves the Sea already? And the film's writers know that too, so instead they have it that it's Ariel trying to protect her daughter from Ursula's crazy sister (whose ability to work as a villain is itself pretty well ruined from the outset by the fact that she apparently waited until her Big Sister could no longer take attention away from her to reveal herself). Fair enough, but that fundamentally undercuts Melody's arc by virtue of the fact that Ariel's entirely right to keep her away from the ocean; we can question her methods, perhaps, but her end-goal is entirely correct: Melody needs to be kept away from the sea lest Morgana get a hold of her, and lo and behold, the second Melody escapes to the sea, that is exactly what happens. Triton's fear of humans was understandable, but the original movie made it clear it was ultimately unjustified; Eric was a good person, and the world Ariel discovered on land was very much a happy, joyful one for her. Here, though, Ariel's desire to keep Melody away from danger is shown, repeatedly, to be an ultimately-correct impulse, and it makes it literally impossible for us to connect with Melody's quest the same way we did her mother's.

All of which shows I probably put more thought into this movie than anyone who actually worked on it did. I love me some Tara Strong, sincerely, but even I can't stand to watch this one.

Douglas Evasick said...

" Setting aside the nuclear holocaust that is Belle's Magical World" - Tim I can't tell you how much your review of that film made me laugh my ass off! Honestly trying to reference it with more bad insults in more of these sequels review is something I look forward to. My single favorite review from you for this year!

Trish said...

That screenshot of Flounder just makes me wonder what the hell species of fish he is even supposed to be (since he clearly isn't a flounder).

Hay Nj said...

I found this review by accident, and I'm sure you've forgotten about it and don't care about it.
But I'm gonna comment anyway, 'cause... HEEeeeey! This was one of my favorite movies as a child! I'm 20 now.

The plot is certainly great enough for a kid. The theme of being bullied and not belonging anywhere, and feeling drawn to the sea and the freedom of it, and all that stuff... Does it really have to get any deeper than that, for a kids' movie? The movie has plenty catchy songs, too. They had great melodies and were plenty fun. Maybe the lyrics were changed for the better in my language. And "then the sequel is, ultimately, about little girls playing dress-up" NOOO! Melody's "foggy" desire to become a mermaid and to be free in the sea was not "foggy" at all! I found her completely relatable because of that. It may seem foggy and about "playing dress-up" to a cynical adult, but it's a kids' movie.

I know reviewers' objective cynicism interferes with normal peoples' subjective emotional connections to movies. I remember the atmosphere of the movie, the feelings it gave me as a kid and how I related to it, sang along to the songs, etc.

I can't believe you critized Melody and Ariel looking the same. Kids and parents always do in animated movies. And the animation is great, unlike the new weird 3D robotic animation of today (for the most part)... Even the movies which actually HAVE humans (and not robots, bees, or other animals) as characters, the humans don't even look human, they look too robotic.

Whereas movies like this were much better at creating atmosphere, like with the animation and the music when Melody is looking into the medallion. Which you obviously don't remember, you don't remember shit, but I was on a roll here and I needed to get it off my chest no matter if no one reads it.

But yes, this was a good sequel. What kid can't relate to Melody's freedom desire, and love for the sea. The storyline was good - better than most teen fairytale movies out today. Ariel wanted to become human - for a dude, Melody didn't belong, wanted to find her roots, was bullied, trapped inside the castle, etc. thus wanted to be free and become a mermaid. Tell me that ain't a good premise for a kids' movie!

Amber Lewis said...

@ Hay NJ I feel you. This was a favorite of mine when I was kid too. If you're over the age of 7, look elsewhere for good entertainment. You won't find them in a Disney sequel. I don't even re-watch them as an adult. When my daughter watches, I just leave the room. 5 seconds of Cindarella 2 makes me want to blow my brains out. That being said, this review was ridiculously hilarious. Which pole? The one with penguins and walruses. And flounder is UGLY. LOL. Great writing. I'm sitting in bed trying not to wake my husband from shaking with laughter.