Originally released in 2000, Return to the Sea is basically an inversion of the 1989 original’s premise. Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson, reprising her role) and Prince Eric (Rob Paulsen, replacing Christopher Daniel Barnes) have a daughter, Melody (Tara Strong). Knowing nothing of her mother’s mermaid past, Melody nonetheless finds herself drawn to the ocean. Ariel, understandably fearful of her deceased foe Ursula’s sister, Morgana (voiced by Pat Carroll, who handled Ursula in the original), forbids Melody from venturing into the water. Teenage rebellion wins out. Soon Melody tangles with Morgana, who turns her into a mermaid.
Of course, Ursula has the worst of intentions, only tricking Melody in an attempt to gain possession of King Triton’s (Kenneth Mars) powerful trident. Return to the Sea is not especially inventive, but it goes down smoothly and harmlessly enough. Samuel E. Wright is back to voice Sebastian the crab, as is Buddy Hackett as Scuttle the seagull. Flounder the fish is voiced by Cam Clarke this time, replacing the original’s Jason Marin.
Ariel’s Beginning debuted in 2008 and this time there’s a little more inspiration invested. Unlike Return, which focused on Melody, here we have considerably more of Ariel (again voiced by Benson). Opening with the perhaps too cautiously-staged death of baby Ariel’s mother, Queen Athena (Lorelei Hill Butters), the plot resembles a kind of underwater Footloose variant. Triton (Jim Cummings this time), due to his overwhelming grief, has banned music from the kingdom of Atlantica. As a result, an underground movement to restore music to the sea has slowly built momentum, led by Sebastian (Wright). There aren’t a lot of new songs this time around, so the showstopper is Wright’s rendition of the Calypso favorite “Jump in the Line (Shake, Shake, Shake Senora).”
Unlike the Ursula retread of Return, Beginnings also gives us a hissable new villain. Marina Del Rey (memorably voiced by none other than Sally Field) is sort of a supervisor, appointed by Triton to monitor Ariel and her six mermaid sisters. She wants to ascend to a level of power in Triton’s court, so she of course begins meddling when Ariel is sneaking off to partake in the illicit musical activities. Field gets to dig into the film’s best new song, “Just One Mistake.” Just as Return felt padded at 75 minutes, Beginnings drags in places in order to reach its feature length of 77 minutes. The animation is subpar by Disney standards, but never anywhere near eyesore level. Retaining Jodi Benson and Samuel E. Wright for both films was definitely a lynchpin to their relative success.
Presented in 1080p high definition and framed at 1.78:1, both Mermaid films look quite good on Blu-ray. Say what you will about the B-level animation, the transfers definitely appear to have been struck from clean sources. The encode itself seems to be free of any glaring technical problems. Each film was given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, though neither is liable to knock anyone’s socks off. The music steals the show in both cases, expanding nicely to the rear channels for backing vocals and such. LFE activity remains a bit light during both films, but given their cut-rate status these mixes work well.
A few extras are included, ported over from the DVD editions. One such feature, “Mermaid Discovery Vanity Game,” remains part of the Ariel’s Beginning DVD only. On the Blu-ray, we get a ten-minute storybook version of Return to the Sea, read by Jodi Benson, that’s basically still images and text. “Gonna Get My Wish” is a fully-animated deleted song sequence (sung by Pat Carroll as Morgana). There’s also an unremastered 1939 Silly Symphonies cartoon short, Merbabies. Ariel’s Beginning is supplemented by the featurette “Splashdance,” which focuses on the film’s director Peggy Holmes. There’s also a pair of primitively-animated deleted scenes, each introduced by Holmes. No digital copy has been included of either film as part of this three-disc set.