Review: ABC’s baffling ‘Little Mermaid Live!’ sunk straight to the bottom of the ocean

Kelly Lawler


Published 10: 45 PM EST Nov 5, 2019

At some point, network TV needs to deliver truly live musicals when they slap the word “live” and an exclamation point at the end of the title. Or maybe they should just stop doing musicals altogether.

In January, we had Fox’s “Rent Live” disaster, which wasn’t actually live; thanks to an actor’s injury, it was a recording of a dress rehearsal taped the previous night. Tuesday, ABC tried to pull off “The Little Mermaid Live!” a poorly-executed mashup of the 1989 animated film, celebrating its 30th anniversary, and live performances of songs from the movie and a Broadway version on a cartoonishly decorated stage. 

It was a solid, full-throated effort by the actors and chorus members, but a spectacular failure of a live TV event that couldn’t get past its own awkwardness. This Tuesday night would have been better spent merely watching the original film. Or we can all just wait until Disney’s big-screen live-action remake gets made. 

From its first moments, “Mermaid Live!” proved its own failure of concept. Jodi Benson, the original voice of Ariel, introduced the mishmash of a production, which abruptly transitions from animated birds to a live-action number in such quick succession it was tough to follow the format. Some characters were introduced in live action, some via the animated scenes. Some characters had an actor double, while others, including key figure King Triton, were seemingly stuck in the prison of 1989 animation, never to escape. 

Starring Auli’i Cravalho (Moana”) as Ariel (sometimes), Queen Latifah as Ursula, Shaggy as Sebastian the crab and John Stamos as Chef Louis, the singers did their level best with their limited stage time. Latifah belted out classic villain anthem “Poor Unfortunate Souls” as if her life depended on it, with the commitment and verve that could have carried a fully live version of the show. But at the end of Latifah’s superb final notes, the screen cut to an animated octo-woman voiced by someone else, and the magic Latifah delivered was zapped just like those poor souls. 

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Despite Latifah’s best efforts, the live-action scenes felt far too low key. Stamos broke character at the end of his big song, “Les Poissons,” to say he wished he had played “Prince Albert – I mean Prince Eric.” Much of the “action” during the live moments happened on a shadow screen behind stationary actors, rendered immovable by fishtail costumes. Shaggy, who performed “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” charmingly, wore a half-finished crab costume that  resembled a motocross outfit more than a crustacean. He looked wildly out of place as he casually walked across a stage covered in almost-creepy puppets. The production had to add an awkward reprisal of “Under the Sea” so that the live actors had something to do once the credits on the animated film rolled. 

The first commercial break featured an ad for Disney+, a good reminder that viewers can, in just one week, watch the original “Mermaid” film (and soon, this one) mercifully uninterrupted by commercials or awkward song breaks. Perhaps “Mermaid Live!” was the most expensive Disney+ ad after all. 

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