“The Little Mermaid Live!,” ABC’s often-jittery, ultimately charming concert special, strode into a heavy wake.
It follows NBC’s now-shelved holiday-season tradition of live musicals whose very appeal was their dancing on the edge of catastrophe, as with ambitious stagings of “The Sound of Music” in 2013 and “Peter Pan” in 2014, shows whose occasional shortfalls proved the admirable ambition of the project. (“Plain and simple: Mean people need Jesus,” Carrie Underwood memorably tweeted the day after her performance as the problem called Maria was widely mocked for limited range.) Earlier this year, Fox’s own attempt at a similar ongoing project came to a jarring and weird impasse when an elaborately planned live production of “Rent” was confronted by its lead breaking his foot before air, necessitating the awkward use of taped rehearsal footage when airtime came.
ABC has no such tradition, and was free to make its own rules for a live musical production — ones that happened to be pleasantly in line with the network’s other current brief. In the days before the launch of Disney Plus, a service whose own original content tends towards a less-than-witty restaging of nostalgia, two hours of ABC’s air were given over to what ultimately was more consequential as a promotion of the 1989 animated classic “The Little Mermaid” than anything overly inventive. A surprising amount of ABC’s “Little Mermaid” was devoted to rebroadcasting often-lengthy scenes from the animated film that might have been difficult to stage, in between live productions of musical numbers.
That fealty to the source material is not a bad thing, though! The amount of time spent with the original “Little Mermaid” was a nice reminder that one of the Disney animated films that has not (yet) been reinvented as a big-budget live-action film has charms, from its painterly animation to its seafaring-pun humor, that would be near-impossible to recreate on grand scale. The show thrived, in its live moments, when it embraced being proudly ersatz — its use, for instance, of puppet critters never meant to look real serenading Eric and Ariel in “Kiss the Girl,” or, for that matter, Shaggy’s late-period-boy-band red leather jumpsuit very roughly symbolizing what an adult man might look like as Sebastian the crab.
The handmade, quirk-heavy tone of the production carried the day so heavily that at least one big star seemed out of place: Heavily anticipated and promoted within the broadcast, Queen Latifah, as Ursula, seemed to fall behind the beat and to generally lack the risky abandon of her part — one that ought to be practically vibrating with menace — and of the piece. (John Stamos, brought in for a cameo, seemed to view his part with outright why-bother disdain; Shaggy, by contrast, may not have embodied Sebastian perfectly, but was committed to his bit.) And, as Ariel, Auliʻi Cravalho brought a moving earnestness throughout, one that provided a compelling match to the animated material. With that as a uniting thread, the shift back and forth between painstaking and lovely animation and lower-fi live production aiming more for “cute” than “beautiful” jarred a bit less.
In all, perhaps this was an advertisement on ABC for Disney Plus that redounded well on both — if we stipulate, in the midst of a somewhat heated moment as regards Disney’s dominance of the entertainment industry, that both existing to promote one another is the unchangeable state of play. ABC’s broadcast was a lovingly made reminder of “The Little Mermaid’s” greatness that cleverly didn’t seek to outshine its source material. And the use of Disney archival materials in conjunction with a production built to pay unfussy homage helped remind casual viewers what, particularly, a network like ABC can pull off at this moment in history — a live broadcast whose ambitions extended as far as credibly entertaining, and that went on to meet them.