Roush Review: ‘Little Mermaid Live’ Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Queen Latifah and Auli'i Cravalho in The Little Mermaid Live!
ABC/Eric McCandless

I hate to be a crab about it, but ABC’s hybrid 30th-anniversary presentation of The Little Mermaid—part movie, part gussied-up concert—felt more sink than swim.

One or the other might have satisfied, but despite the best efforts of a game cast—with Queen Latifah a standout in full diva glory (and the night’s best costume) as villainous sea witch Ursula—the effect of this collision of styles was more like a tepid theme-park or cruise-ship imitation. It was hard not to cringe when the special shimmied from the rightfully beloved 1989 animated classic into live-action mode, with a deafeningly cheering audience helping to obscure many of the late Howard Ashman’s brilliant lyrics.

(ABC/Mitch Haaseth)

The Oscar-winning show-stopper “Under the Sea” might as well have been sung with soap bubbles for all that was intelligible in Shaggy’s awkward rehash. His laughable Sebastian outfit, resembling a cross between Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy’s red-leather phases, was tacky enough to conjure unhappy flashbacks of the Rob Lowe-Snow White Oscar duet, also from 30 years ago. (We with long memories sometimes wish we didn’t.)

(ABC/Eric McCandless)

Auli’i Cravalho sang sweetly enough as Ariel, and her airborne swim-flying was a truly special effect, while Graham Phillips (Alicia’s son on The Good Wife) as dashing Prince Eric did what he could with solos (new to many viewers) added from the short-lived Broadway production. But because the live actors were basically little more than musical stand-ins for the more vividly drawn animated characters, there wasn’t much opportunity for anyone to develop actual chemistry or connection on stage. Except maybe John Stamos’s hammy self-regard as Chef Louis in the chaotic “Les Poissons” number—which like nearly everything else in this production played better in the movie.

(ABC/Mitch Haaseth)

The good news for the poor unfortunate souls who sat through this misguided mishmash: the original Little Mermaid film can be seen uninterrupted in its entirety when the Disney+ streaming service launches in a week. Surely you’ve heard about it—especially if you sat through the oh-so-many ads scattered throughout Tuesday night’s show.