By Darren Franich
November 06, 2019 at 12:14 AM EST
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Was The Little Mermaid Live! the last live TV musical? Man, I’m not even sure you could call it a live TV musical. The original movie, which turns 30 this month, played throughout the nominally live-action two-hour event, which aired Tuesday night on ABC. You understand the intention: Interspersing animated interludes with the actors could give us the best of both worlds, a movie we love with old songs made brand new! Instead, it felt like watching The Little Mermaid with regular interruptions for commercials and karaoke.

Auli’i Cravalho played Ariel, the mermaid hoping for a better life up where they walk, up where they run. She sang the big numbers, and at one point swam-floated on wires. But the nature of the production forced her to spend most of her time on stage sitting in one place. Meanwhile, the animated Ariel did all the fun stuff, and at one point an imaginary background-extra Ariel performed an aerial dance in a dreamy background. Playing so much of the cartoon didn’t do the actors any favor. The old 2D animation has a bounce and a fluidity, with a sparkle-shadow underwater world that still surprises on the 101st watch. Meanwhile, the design of Mermaid Live! aimed for maximum goofery. Better off Googling “Little Mermaid High School Production,” and then you won’t have to suffer through so many awful Muppet advertisements for Facebook.

Cravalho shared a few onstage sequences with Graham Phillips’ dutifully bland Prince Eric. Otherwise, the performers felt segmented into glossy cameos. Shaggy had some fun as Sebastian, especially during “Kiss the Girl.” But here’s one rule of musicals: If you’re playing the crab, you have to play the crab. The musician cheated with a red jumpsuit that looked leftover from a Power Rangers disco. The whole show felt like it was cheating, really, avoiding the potential for Peter Pan-ish hate-watching by refusing to chance anything worth hating.

Credit Queen Latifah, who suffered from tentacular costumery as Ursula the Sea Witch. Ursula is a justifiably beloved character, one of those Disney Villains you inevitably relate to as you get older. I’d be intrigued to see what the hip-hop star and Oscar nominee could bring to the role. But a lot of the fun, freakiness, and wit of Ursula was left to the original cartoon (and its great Pat Carroll performance). Then the camera would cut to Queen Latifah, looking trapped inside her own elaborate costume. (At one point, she ripped off one of the tentacles — the funniest part of the whole production.) It’s only been a few years since Grease: Live turned viewers into active participants, nonstop camera tracking singers and dancers beyond sets. Here, the performers seemed to become part of the furniture.

Who was this for, exactly? The movie is still the movie, fun and obviously out of date, which is a natural thing for a 30-year-old movie based on the absolute nicest interpretation of a 180-year-old story. There is the promise of a new live-action Little Mermaid movie, starring Halle Bailey (cool!) and directed by Rob Marshall (blergh!). This event seemed neither here nor there, unwilling to fully commit to the massive scope required by this world-hopping material. There were songs from the Broadway show, but I assume Broadway fans tuned in expecting to see humans perform, and instead they got an enhanced movie viewing party.

You kept wondering what an entirely live production would have done with the elaborate set pieces. Imagine the final wedding party, when all the sea creatures attack: So many black-suited puppeteers, or maybe four people inside one walrus costume! Nope, they just played the movie. Will there be a parade of those little polyp things Ursula shrinks into her garden? Nope, those eerie effects were left to the movie. Oh wow, but how will they present Ursula growing to skyscraper size, will there be a giant animatronic Queen Latifah? Never mind, they played the film again. Oh, now the little chyron at the bottom is promising a live finale, I bet this will be something new and different! No, no, no, they’re all just walking down the stage while the credits roll. Hi, Amber Riley!

Cravalho voiced the lead role of Moana, a wonderful 2016 Disney feature, which crossed some Lin-Manuel Miranda bangers with a David Bowie crab-god. This feels like a demotion. The Howard Ashman-Alan Menken tunes are still very catchy, but all the new interpretations were unmemorable. I’m not sure how many more live TV musicals we’ve got on the horizon, but I know that The Little Mermaid Live! moved the whole genre one step closer to a watery grave. D

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