Spoiler Alert! This review contains spoilers for West Coast viewers of The Little Mermaid Live! Disney’s library will never be short on projects to adapt, but of all things Mouse The Little Mermaid must be one of the most challenging to turn live-action because of all that water. On Tuesday night, Disney took the sea creatures to another level with ABC’s hybrid musical event and Moana star Auli’i Cravalho — a fairly magical combo that suggests these hybrids can float, if not quite as swimmingly as one might hope.
The live telecast was basically an airing of the 1989 animated Disney classic about idealistic mermaid Ariel fascinated with land and the humans who occupy it, especially Prince Eric. She makes a deal Ursula the sea witch, things immediately go sideways and she questions her life choices.
Although enjoyable, The Little Mermaid Live! wasn’t a spectacular feat of television, but it stayed afloat when it came to entertainment. The seamless mix of live performances intercut with the classic film was an inventive way to present an existing film in a new way that wasn’t just a rebooted film.
Tonight’s event featured live, elaborately costumed performances of songs from the film and the 2007 Broadway musical woven into the cartoon.
The idea is similar to those Hollywood Bowl concert productions or theme park shows. But The Little Mermaid Live! freshened the concept with some inventive multi-media trickery.
The introductory number, Broadway’s “Fathoms Below,” introduced exactly what The Little Mermaid Live! was trying to do. The opening credits from the film took us into the live version and placed us aboard a ship as sailors, led by handsome Prince Eric (Graham Phillips), did their jigs and sang their chanties.
The role of Ariel is paramount, an icon in the Disney canon. Originally voiced by Jodi Benson, her songs, specifically “Part of Your World” is a modern Disney anthem, and this live event risked fan revolt. But Cravalho, donning the red wig, played the part with real joy. Although near-immobile most of the time due to that fin, the actress and her crystalline voice seemed destined for Disney.
Also in the cast was Shaggy, who as Sebastian the crab wore a red Captain EO-meets-“Thriller”-meets-Motorcross outfit. He could have used more claws as the conscientious crustacean, while John Stamos reprised his brief-yet-enjoyable role as the silly and obsessive Chef Louis from the Hollywood Bowl version. The amazing Amber Riley also popped in as the show’s emcee — and we could have used a lot more of her robust voice.
As for Prince Eric, let’s face it. Disney princes are basically handsome afterthoughts, but Phillips brought some texture, soulfulness, charm and a fine voice to the Ariel’s beloved human, particularly on “Her Voice” and the duet “If Only.” He made us understand why the mermaid’s heart melts.
But tonight’s MVP was Queen Latifah as Ursula. The sea witch is one of those outsized Disney villains who can lean to the bombastic, but Latifah owned every bellow. She strutted with each and every tentacle on “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” almost making us root for her as she ruins Ariel’s life.
The Little Mermaid Live! went all out with costuming and set design. Maintaining the playful tone of Disney animation with puppetry and those costumes (keep an eye out for a cameo by Jimmy Kimmel Live!’s Guillermo in blowfish garb), the production took on an aquatic palette and lighting, all the better for that bubbling and wirework-assisted swimming and splashing about.