On November 17, 1989, Disney debuted “The Little Mermaid” to audiences across America, and 30 years later, it’s about to do it again. “The Little Mermaid Live!” is the latest live musical event to hit television, preceding the Mouse’s live-action film adaptation starring Halle Bailey (and slated to start production in 2020) and following in the footsteps of small screen hits like “Grease,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and last year’s “Rent” adaptation. But this is the first entry from ABC, the first attempt to reimagine a beloved Disney classic on TV, and everyone involved aims to make a pretty big splash.
First off, “The Little Mermaid Live!” isn’t reimagining the original film so much as it’s accompanying its melody. Ron Clements and John Musker’s classic movie will be “interwoven” into the live production — in other words, when there’s a song to be sung, it’ll be performed live by the cast and crew on hand, but at all other times, ABC will be airing the original film. Also, there will be songs from the Broadway production of “The Little Mermaid,” but none of the adaptation’s story changes will be featured in tonight’s live show. This is an ode to the original film, through and through.
Supporting that theme, Jodi Benson, the original voice of Ariel, will deliver a special introduction to the evening, and Amber Riley will serve as the night’s emcee (who’s also simply named Emcee) — a role added to help smooth over transitions between the film and live musical numbers. You’ll meet Riley when she takes the stage during “Daughters of Triton,” introducing each of Ariel’s singing sisters.
So who else is in the cast? Auli’i Cravalho is playing Ariel, adding another Disney princess to her resume after voicing the lead role in 2016’s “Moana.” Queen Latifah is set to play Ursula, while none other than Shaggy will voice Sebastian in this musical reinterpretation. John Stamos will return to the land of musicals after stealing the spotlight in ABC’s short-lived medieval comedy “Galavant.” Here, he’ll be playing Chef Louis, while Graham Phillips (“Riverdale”) will be co-starring as Prince Eric.
Done+Dusted will produce the live event, with decade-long live TV veteran Hamish Hamilton on board as director and executive producer. Katy Mullan, David Jammy, Raj Kapoor, and Ian Stewart will also executive produce, alongside the producer and director of the acclaimed Hollywood Bowl productions of “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” Richard Kraft.
How will it all turn out? That’s what we’re here to debate. Below, follow along with the IndieWire TV team throughout the airing for an assessment of the best and worst moments as they happen. Post your own thoughts in the comment section, and let us know if the ABC production does justice to the film its trying to honor. [Editor’s note: It should go without saying, but spoilers follow.]
- The Set: Not as massive as “Jesus Christ Superstar’s” innovative setup but offering well-utilized depth, creative production design, and engaging intimacy, the main stage was built to bring audiences under the sea — and it worked.
- The Vocals: Auli’i Cravalho and Queen Latifah hit all the right notes as Ariel and Ursula, respectively. Cravalho showed off her commanding range, while Latifah worked through some tongue-tying lyrics with great precision.
- The Musical: What was live about “The Little Mermaid Live!” really worked well overall. Each song was given its own unique lighting scheme, color palette, and choreography — and most represented the film well in both look and tone. There were even a few clever transitions between the movie and the musical, like the fish being tossed over a sailor’s shoulder and, when it lands, the movie is playing, or Ursula staring into a mirror before switching to Queen Latifah doing the same onstage.
- The Synergy: Ads are almost always obtrusive, but they felt even more so with plenty of plugs for Disney+, Disney movies, and Disney affiliates — in case anyone was wondering why “The Little Mermaid Live!” aired weeks before the movie’s 30th anniversary, look no further than next week’s streaming launch.
- The Puppets: For as exquisite as the costumes and stagecraft were Tuesday night, the use of random, dead-eyed puppets proved distracting, especially when their endearing movie counterparts were right there for comparison.
- The Shaggy: While his performance was fine, the uninspired costume seemed especially dull after a bunch of crabs took the stage with John Stamos. Why was Sebastian dressed like Michael Jackson, and how is that appropriate for a kids’ show?
- The Movie: Switching between the classic film and a live production may have sounded good in theory, especially when considering the movie breaks gave the production more time to swap sets, but its execution was clunky. People tuned in to see a live musical performance; a reimagining of the film they know all too well. Instead, they spent half the time watching the old flick, and half the time seeing something new. The two didn’t gel, even when the production team made an extra effort to bring them together.
What was live was good, what wasn’t became diminished by expectations and comparisons — that’s not an ideal blend, and I’ll take an ambitious failure over half-a-musical any day. (Plus, if they changed the dialogue scenes, they could’ve reworked the story so Ariel didn’t give up her life and family to marry some dude.) “The Little Mermaid Live” will likely be remembered for what wasn’t there more than what was, and that’s been the death toll for live musicals so far. (Remember “Rent”? No? That’s because it wasn’t exactly as-advertised either.) By the time Ariel and her Prince are ready to celebrate their wedding, all the electric energy generated by a live audience watching a live performance dissipated as the old movie’s ending played out uninterrupted. The grandeur is real, but it didn’t feel earned.
For more, check out the live blog below. “The Little Mermaid Live!” aired Tuesday, November 5 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.