Little Mermaid Live!: Disneys Horniest Musical Is Messy TV

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Can Disneys horniest animated musical save live TV as we know it? The Little Mermaid Live! was just dementedand, frankly, disappointingly chasteenough 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 Wasnt Me fame pretending to be a crab begging two teens to tongue wrestle cant 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!

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Heres 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, doesnt guarantee that it was good. I mean, it was. It also wasnt.

Theres a blessing and a curse to the very notion of bringing the animated version of this Disney musical to life.

The blessing? The music! Its 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 Aulii Cravalho, Queen Latifah, and, though with merely gust-ish, Shaggy as Sebastian.

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The curse? Well, in the endand especially when this story is brought to life with humansyou kind of just want Ariel and Eric to bang.

Im not a perv. Literally theres an entire song about it, Kiss the Girl, in which the entire animal kingdom is on our voyeuristic side. So dont shoot me! Im not the messenger. Freuds greatest regret is dying before he could analyze our cultures 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! didnt exactly drown. But it wasnt exactly the hair-whipping, chest-baring, proud triumph against the wavesthat iconic Ariel image, speaking of sexualizing a cartoonthat it maybe needed to be, either.

Having covered these things since The Sound of Music Live! brought on the live musical renaissance through betterthe rousing, raucous rock-n-roll staging of Jesus Christ Superstarand much, much worsePeter 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.

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Thats especially true when it comes The Little Mermaid (and most entries in the Disney canon). How do you reinvent a classic Disney propertyperhaps the most hallowed of all pop-culture nostalgiawhile 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 Carrolls own interpretation is playing right before she steps on stage, for all the excitement of Latifahs live rendition, its a bit of a let down in comparison.

Then theres the fact that its 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 formthis time onto the voice of Moana, Aulii Cravalhoit, by translation, becomes absurdist drag.

Likewise, and bless his heart, theres 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.)

Everyone involved should be embarrassed and proud! I hated it as much I loved it! What a miserable triumph!

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 TVall the flying through the air, bright, feathery costumes, and puppetrywasnt as impressive or interesting as Im sure it was in person.

As TV, then, this was merely a special treat to watch The Little Mermaid. Frankly, thats never a bad thing. Its a great movie! It has great songs! These were great singers and actors performing great songs!

Its 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 dont know! What do I look like? The inventor of the dinglehopper?

Its fun for people to be excited about things. I hope they were excited about this. I guess what Im 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.

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