Can Disney’s horniest animated musical save live TV as we know it? The Little Mermaid Live! was just demented—and, frankly, disappointingly chaste—enough to possibly do it. Or, as it more accurately should be called, The Little Mermaid (Occasionally) Live!
Since no one watches actual TV anymore, the last remaining hope is reverting to, ironically, one of the most reliable ratings ploys stretching back to the dawn of television: the live musical event. If Shaggy of “It Wasn’t Me” fame pretending to be a crab begging two teens to tongue wrestle can’t revive our appetites for live television in its purest, if randiest form...then what will?
All jokes aside about the 1989 Disney musical about a 16-year-old girl with eye-popping cleavage who risks her life to in order to, quite literally, spread her legs for a prince with a jawline so chiseled it turned an entire millennial generation gay on-site, The Little Mermaid Live! was an equally audacious and disastrous, admirable TV experiment. Everyone involved should be embarrassed and proud! I hated it as much I loved it! What a miserable triumph!
Here’s the thing: This is not our first rodeo in this now-ubiquitous genre of live musicals, nor is it the first time someone took a hit of acid and tried to stage the underwater lunacy of The Little Mermaid on an actual stage. The approach Tuesday night was among the most innovative, while at the same time the safest.
Considering that interpretations of The Little Mermaid since the animated film fall on the spectrum to your niece running screaming around the house in her Party City Ariel costume to the fever-dream Broadway production in which actors wore rolling heely shoes, the en vogue footwear of 2005, The Little Mermaid Live! is safe from catastrophic judgment. But that, really, doesn’t guarantee that it was good. I mean, it was. It also wasn’t.
There’s a blessing and a curse to the very notion of bringing the animated version of this Disney musical to life.
The blessing? The music! It’s the best. What a treat to witness live performers belt, wail, and mug to songs like “Part of Your World,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” or “Under the Sea,” performed with gusto by Auli’i Cravalho, Queen Latifah, and, though with merely gust-ish, Shaggy as Sebastian.
The curse? Well, in the end—and especially when this story is brought to life with humans—you kind of just want Ariel and Eric to bang.
I’m not a perv. Literally there’s an entire song about it, “Kiss the Girl,” in which the entire animal kingdom is on our voyeuristic side. So don’t shoot me! I’m not the messenger. Freud’s greatest regret is dying before he could analyze our culture’s collective obsession with this film.
As polarizing reviews and roller-coaster ratings have marked previous experiments in the live musical genre, with everything from Grease, Rocky Horror Picture Show, A Christmas Story, and Rent being staged with mixed results, each ensuing entry is a test case.
The Little Mermaid Live! didn’t exactly drown. But it wasn’t exactly the hair-whipping, chest-baring, proud triumph against the waves—that iconic Ariel image, speaking of sexualizing a cartoon—that it maybe needed to be, either.
Having covered these things since The Sound of Music Live! brought on the live musical renaissance through better—the rousing, raucous rock-n-roll staging of Jesus Christ Superstar—and much, much worse—Peter Pan Live!—I can say that these are almost always doomed from the start.
For one, live viewing these days is generally reserved for live-tweet mockery, as cutting jokes get more likes than “hey, that seemed to hard to do on live TV and was adequately performed.” But also, there is an impossible-to-reconcile tension between honoring the source material or most recognizable version of a property and also not simply replicating it in boring fashion.
That’s especially true when it comes The Little Mermaid (and most entries in the Disney canon). How do you reinvent a classic Disney property—perhaps the most hallowed of all pop-culture nostalgia—while still reinventing it? Well, as The Little Mermaid Live! illustrated, you can do both.
The conceit here is that, as the original voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson, explained at the top of the two-hour production (a very classy move to include her!), the production would show the original 1989 animated film and, when it was time for a character to perform a musical number, everything would transition to a live stage where a fully costumed and choreographed cast would perform. Is this what Martin Scorsese is referring to when he talks about cinema?
People are so protective of these musical properties, Disney especially, that, in concept, this is a perfect solution to the problem of adaptation. (Again, the last time we tried this we got Ariel on heelies.) In practice, however, the whole thing was an exercise in lunacy.
For one, you are reminded of the imitable brilliance of the original voice cast. Queen Latifah stopped the show multiple times, ostensibly perfect: devilishly stuffed into her rubber octopus costume with her sky-high shock of blond hair and oodles of lascivious, royal succubus energy as Ursula. And yet, when Pat Carroll’s own interpretation is playing right before she steps on stage, for all the excitement of Latifah’s live rendition, it’s a bit of a let down in comparison.
Then there’s the fact that it’s impossible to costume Ariel without a diagnosable level of maniacal camp. Blame, again, the randy animators who decided this teenage Disney princess should be the platonic ideal of nubile prey, with her unreal proportions, shampoo-commercial-ready hair, and inappropriate attire. But each time the look is translated to human form—this time onto the voice of Moana, Auli’i Cravalho—it, by translation, becomes absurdist drag.
Likewise, and bless his heart, there’s no way that Graham Phillips, the young actor cast as Prince Eric, could live up the sexual-adonis legacy of his animated cartoon counterpart. (If you want to feel 400 years old, allow me to inform you that Phillips was, not that long ago, the teenage son of Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife.)
Did the two have any romantic chemistry? None! A travesty considering the entire premise of this story, which is centered on a horniness so great even Triton, King of the Sea, concedes to it. Was it adorable to watch them sing? Of course! And yet...
I truly believe that had any of us been in the live studio audience for this, it would have been one of the entertainment highlights of the year. I can also say with certainty that any magic there may have been watching those numbers performed live in person did not translate to TV.
Was there the awkward excitement of watching people singing live in ridiculous costumes? Oh yes. Just ask Shaggy, the reggae-pop hitmaker who played Sebastian the Crab with an extreme stiltedness that bordered on endearing. Even if imperfect, was it still a thrill to see the stars sing? For sure. I will not insinuate in any way that it was good, but I will say that I ascended to a higher plane of existence watching John Stamos as the French chef perform "Les Poissons."
But the sad truth is that watching it on TV—all the flying through the air, bright, feathery costumes, and puppetry—wasn’t as impressive or interesting as I’m sure it was in person.
As TV, then, this was merely a special treat to watch The Little Mermaid. Frankly, that’s never a bad thing. It’s a great movie! It has great songs! These were great singers and actors performing great songs!
It’s the weird thing of, like, as a critic, no, this was not good. Duh. But as a person who wants an occasion to watch The Little Mermaid and giggle while famous people do silly live versions of the songs? Yeah, this is great. How do you reconcile the two? I don’t know! What do I look like? The inventor of the dinglehopper?
It’s fun for people to be excited about things. I hope they were excited about this. I guess what I’m saying is, keep doing them! Keep doing these weird, sexually baffling, misguided, brave, and woefully wild musicals. I love watching them and mocking them and cherishing them and hating them and admiring them. I hope for that same confusion for generations to come.