This sequel was released in the year 2000, eleven years after the original premiered; fittingly, the majority of the story in the sequel takes place almost eleven years (actually, twelve years) after the finale of the original as well, where Ariel has matured and become a mother to a princess named Melody.
This film was released well in the thick of Disney's direct-to-video sequel boom, where various classics received sequels and in-between-quels that acted more as homages to the classics instead of trying to recreate the magic of the originals. Many of the sequels also introduced ironic twists that refer to the originals, and that's true for Return to the Sea as well.
Melody is the film's main character, not Ariel, and it is through her eyes that the audience revisits the world we first saw in the 1989 film. The twist here is that Melody becomes to Ariel what Ariel once was to Triton; she rebels against her mother's well-meaning ways, and yearns for the forbidden sea the way that Ariel once yearned for forbidden land.
A great deal of the original cast returned to reprise their performances, namely Jodi Benson as Ariel, Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, Kenneth Mars as King Triton, Buddy Hackett as Scuttle, Rene Auberjonois as Chef Louis, and Edie McClurg as Carlotta. Pat Carroll, who voiced Ursula, takes on her sister Morgana in this one. New voices to round out the cast were Tara Charendoff (Strong) as Melody, Max Casella as Tip, Stephen Furst as Dash, Rob Paulsen as Eric, Clancy Brown as Undertow, Cam Clarke as Flounder, and Kay E. Kuter as Grimsby.
In a prologue sequence, Ariel and Eric are celebrating their daughter Melody, who they bring out in a ship to present to King Triton and the other merfolk. All is well and good until Ursula's sister, Morgana, crashes the party and takes the baby princess hostage in return for Triton's trident. Morgana's attack is foiled, but in the aftermath Ariel decides that the best thing to do is to isolate Melody completely from the ocean world and never tell her about her Atlantican heritage.
A massive wall is built around Ariel and Eric's castle, effectively cutting it off from the sea, while Melody herself grows up having been banned from ever entering the ocean. But Melody is not her mother's daughter for nothing and gets around this, exploring the ocean whenever she gets the chance. She also befriends Sebastian in her exploration, but has no idea of his significance in her mother's life. Eventually Ariel's protectiveness proves too much, and Melody runs away and bumps into none other than Morgana. Morgana, using what little of Ursula's magic she has been able to save, gives Melody the chance to be a mermaid forever, if she could only do a teensy weensy little favour: steal Triton's trident.
Melody thinks it's a pretty sweet deal, and travels to Atlantica to fulfil her part of the bargain, having no idea that the king she's stealing from is her own grandfather. Along the way she befriends Tip and Dash, a penguin and walrus who quickly become her buddies. Elsewhere, her parents Ariel and Eric are frantically trying to find her, with Ariel eventually resorting to transforming back into a mermaid thanks to Triton's magic, so to speed up the search. It's a race against time for the trident, but more importantly, it's a race to an explosive confrontation between mother and daughter, where all will finally be revealed.
A soundtrack album accompanied the release of the sequel, featuring all the songs that were in the movie, along with a few strongs from Sebastian: Party Gras! The track list is as follows:
Aside from the official soundtrack, two CD samplers were released separately, presumably to promote the film in other channels. One of the CD samplers contains Chely Wright's version of Part of Your World, which played over the movie's end credits. Many thanks to Alex for this info!The first sampler has:
Bonus: there's a deleted song that was included in the Special Edition DVD: Gonna Get My Wish [ lyrics ]
Return to the Sea was initially released direct to VHS and DVD in September 2000. The DVD extras in this initial release include a "The Little Mermaid 2 Trivia Game", a "Disney DVD Storybook" which retells the film in "pages", an interactive game, and the Silly Symphony short "Merbabies".
The film had a Special Edition release in 2008, which includes the extras from the first release, along with some new ones, namely Morgana's deleted scene and song "I'm Gonna Get My Wish", and some new interactive games. At this time there was also a The Little Mermaid Trilogy set that bundled all three films together.
In 2013 there came along two new releases for DVD and Blu-Ray, namely the 2-Movie Collection that bundles The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea and The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning together, plus a The Little Mermaid Complete Collection that has all three films together.
Return to the Sea is one of those films that I can see and appreciate the effort that went into making a story that pays tribute to the original film (there's some amazing scenes in there, plus various little moments that are incredibly charming) but for me personally it fails the multiple-rewatch test. There are quite a few Disney direct-to-video sequels I enjoy on their own merit, but the thing about Return to the Sea is that its plot hinges on a terrible misunderstanding, and makes the movie as a whole more painful for me instead of joyful.
It's a clever idea in theory to view Ariel from Melody's outsider perspective, and show how history repeats itself with its inter-generational conflict, but in order to get to that conflict, they had to reverse-engineer some pretty farfetched logic, so that a popular character (Ariel) could make some terrible decisions and become the worst version of her own father. Sure, there are "plot" reasons for Ariel and Eric protecting and lying to Melody the way they do, but it makes poor emotional sense considering how beloved these characters are and fills the film with foreboding. The conflict didn't have to come from inside the house, you know? But plenty of love for the original film went into this one, which is nice to see, and Melody is a compelling new character.