At times, last night’s ABC telecast of “The Little Mermaid Live!” seemed as caught between two worlds as its heroine.
Was it supposed to be a one-of-a-kind live television event? Or was this just another re-airing of an animated classic? Was it a nostalgic reminder of Walt Disney Studios’ long association with network television? Or was it a two-hour commercial for all things Disney?
The most important question: Was it entertaining? The answer: mostly yes. As the Disney executives learned 30 years ago, a handful of catchy Howard Ashman and Alan Menken songs nearly always covers up any shortcomings.
“The Little Mermaid Live!” wasn’t a straightforward live-action adaptation of the 1989 animated film, nor was it a TV version of Disney’s 2007 Broadway musical. Instead, the producers borrowed an idea from the recent Hollywood Bowl concert presentations of “The Little Mermaid,” by alternating between the original film’s footage and some new live performances of its big musical numbers.
Even abridged and cut into chunks, the movie remains a delight. Back in 1989, Walt Disney’s animation division had been in the creative doldrums for decades until “The Little Mermaid,” with its Hans Christian Anderson-inspired story of a mermaid named Ariel who sacrifices her voice to a sea witch, brought families back to multiplexes in droves.
The visual style and animation in “The Little Mermaid” looks crude today, at least compared to what the studio would produce in the 1990s with “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” But the simple love story, the colorful characters and Ashman and Menken’s toe-tapping music still make the film easy to watch, and rewatch.
Jodi Benson, the voice of Disney’s original Ariel, introduced “The Little Mermaid Live!,” before giving way to the new version’s live-action lead: Auli’i Cravalho, best known for voicing the title character in the 2016 Disney hit “Moana.” Queen Latifah played the witch, Ursula, while Graham Phillips took on the role of Prince Eric.
The reggae performer Shaggy played Ariel’s anxious adviser, Sebastian, a comical crab who had two of the night’s showstoppers: the rousing, Caribbean-spiced “Under the Sea,” and the seductive ballad “Kiss the Girl.”
The actor John Stamos reprised a part he’d previously played at the Hollywood Bowl: the fish-eating fiend Chef Louis, who gleefully belted out the darkly comic number “Les Poissons.” (Anyone who can see the words “Les Poissons” without immediately saying “hee hee hee haw haw haw” in an outrageous French accent has clearly never seen the 1989 “Little Mermaid.”)
All of these performers handled the material well. The stunt casting of celebrities has sometimes been a drag on live TV musicals, but this cast could sing, and the animated characters handled most of the dialogue.
Queen Latifah was especially impressive, sounding appropriately deep-voiced and sultry on Ursula’s big song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The lesser-known Phillips was also a surprise standout, bringing depth and resonance to “Her Voice,” a song from Broadway’s “Little Mermaid.”
The special’s staging was more hit-and-miss. The Broadway musical’s elaborately costumed dancers were mostly replaced with puppets, which gave the performances visual impact but sometimes made the production look like a low-budget local kiddie TV show.
Unlike some of the other live TV musicals, the studio audience was only intermittently a factor, and rarely for the better. The crowd mostly stayed silent when the movie was playing, then whooped so loudly at Queen Latifah and John Stamos that it was sometimes hard to hear Ashman’s witty lyrics.
In general, the transitions from animation to live action looked smooth, although the pieces still felt disconnected. The overall effect was like watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, where the natural flow of marching bands, floats and balloons is periodically interrupted by stripped-down, out-of-context excerpts from Broadway shows.
Overall, “The Little Mermaid Live!” probably wouldn’t have been the best way for a newcomer to experience the original movie. But the special’s stop-and-start approach may have sparked some warm feelings among TV viewers old enough to remember the weekly “The Wonderful World of Disney” broadcasts, which often presented treasures from the studio’s vault in truncated versions, broken up by commercials. (Granted, a lot of the ads in last night’s show were for Disney Plus, the company’s upcoming streaming service that couldn’t have existed 30 years ago.)
And every now and then — if not quite often enough — the live material in “The Little Mermaid Live!” did result in some real Disney magic. When Cravalho as Ariel sang the classic Disney “I wish” ballad “Part of Your World,” and then floated above the audience as though swimming through the air, the moment was genuinely thrilling — not unlike how it felt to sit in a theater in 1989, and see an American pop-culture institution spark back to life.
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