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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Did Audiences Flip Their Fins For the Live Action Version of The Little Mermaid?

by Beth Keating
Review (Warning: This review contains spoilers.)
November 6, 2019

Far be it from Disney to not recognize a good thing when it swims across their radar.  

Live action adaptations of Disney classics have been known to rake in the bucks at the box office, with Aladdin (2019) flying home with more than a billion dollars worldwide, while The Jungle Book (2016) slithered by with a mere $966 million.  The Fairy Godmother granted Lily James’ live action Cinderella (2015) a $542 million worldwide windfall, and this fall’s The Lion King (2019) brought in $1.6 billion to date. Disney is banking (no pun intended this time) on the fact that Disney-philes will eat up retellings of their favorite childhood stories. When Disney+ launches on November 12th, a live action version of Lady and the Tramp will likely send sales of spaghetti soaring.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it appears the live action retellings are here to stay.

This year, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the release of The Little Mermaid, Disney is offering up two vastly different versions of their iconic 80s animated classic.  The first of those entries aired last night (November 5th, at 8 pm EST on ABC), with The Little Mermaid Live!  East Coasters were able to watch as it unfolded, while West Coasters viewed the replay. The second offering, due to begin filming in the spring of 2020, is a Rob Marshall directed live action movie with additional new music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who incidentally composed for Moana as well. Miranda, you may recall, was Jack in Mary Poppins Returns (2018), and is a Tony Award winner (2016) for his work on the Broadway hit Hamilton

NBC has previously peppered the live TV arena with productions including The Sound of Music Live (2013), Hairspray Live (2016), and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (2018), while Fox supplied such productions as Grease: Live (2016), The Passion (2016), and A Christmas Story Live (2017) to the genre. ABC came late to the party last night, as Little Mermaid Live! represents its first live action TV presentation of this type.

Last evening’s performance was quasi-live action. In order to not compete with their own Rob Marshall directed version, Disney had to come up with a unique way of presenting this early version of the tale.  Portions of the production were live, as big-name stars brought the iconic characters to life, while other segments of the show were presented through the eyes of the 1989 feature film.  This hybrid format hopefully satisfied Disney purists, as the core of the story remained true to the original film, at the same time that it added excitement to the production in the form of new and creative musical presentations pumped up with star power. Alan Menken’s wonderful scores were still there, with a few modern twists to give each artist’s personality a chance to shine.

Two-time Disney Princess Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) gave emotional voice to Ariel, with Shaggy accompanying the young mermaid as sidekick Sebastian the Crab. Graham Phillips joined the cast as Prince Eric, and Disney uber-fan John Stamos cooked up some chuckles as Chef Louis.  Queen Latifah gave a powerfully voiced performance, scaring the starfish out of us and bringing the power-hungry villainess and princess-want-to-be Ursula to life.  At the helm was director Hamish Hamilton, who is no stranger to live performances.  He has previously directed live productions, including Super Bowl half-time shows and Olympics ceremonies, as well as the Oscars. 

Little Mermaid Live! was a more-than-satisfactory endeavor. I was initially skeptical about how effectively the movie clips would blend with live action without creating a jarring switch from scene to scene. After the first few scenes though, I hardly gave it a thought. Magnificent costuming brought tremendous theatrical value to the show, while colorful puppeteers filled out the scenes and helped bring the world to life. Auli’i Cravalho performed some of my favorite Disney songs in Moana, and she equally soared in this version of Little Mermaid – quite literally.  Harnessed into her mermaid tail and rigging, Auli’i “swam” high above the crowd without missing a beat. While the show’s sound was uneven and quickly paced at times, and some of the dance sequences between Prince Eric and Ariel in the background of Ariel’s “Part of Your World” were a tad awkward, the choreography for the show was Broadway-caliber and the elaborate sets were gorgeous.  Interesting camera angles also helped tell the tale, particularly when we got the chance to “look down” into the sea at Ariel at the end of “Part of Your World.”  Shaggy’s version of “Under the Sea” imparted a fabulous party atmosphere to the evening, and Queen Latifah gave a commanding performance as the sea-witch. Even the audience was given props for a chance to participate in the event.

The big surprise of the evening was Graham Phillips.  He was great in the high-energy opening number, “Fathoms Below,” but he was particularly amazing in the ballad “Her Voice,” which was not in the 1989 Little Mermaid film, but was in the Broadway version. Also added to the show was an adapted version of “If Only,” a musical number with Ariel and Prince Eric that was originally a quartet in the Broadway version, but became a poignant love song here as a duet staged on a rotating split wall. What a great decision to give Prince Eric a more visible – and musical- role in this version of Little Mermaid! Without a doubt, it gave the Prince far more dimension than his movie counterpart ever had.

On the whole, The Little Mermaid Live! was so much more than I was expecting it to be, given that nearly half of the evening was movie based. The cast was certainly able to put their own stamp on the show, while still honoring the original film.  They brought just enough new flavor to the evening without sacrificing what fans love about the original film, providing an interesting new take on the classic.

Will audiences flip their fins over this initial Little Mermaid offering? If the demographics provided a strong showing last night, it will undoubtedly whet viewers’ appetites for next year’s Rob Marshall-directed live action version of the fairy tale. The impulsive little red-haired mermaid has long been one of the favorite princesses in our house – can it be thirty years already?  Sebastian asks, “With such wonderful things around you, what more is you looking for?” This show was a pretty good start…Hopefully, those “poor unfortunate souls” who missed it live had the foresight to DVR it for encore performances!

Beth Keating is a regular contributor to DisneyBizJournal.

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