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TV Review: 'The Little Mermaid Live'

The Little Mermaid was performed in front of a live audience on ABC last night. It starred Auli'i Cravalho, the actress who voiced Moana, and combined animation with the live performance.

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Transcript:

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

"The Little Mermaid," the animated Disney classic, became the latest film to get a live treatment on network television. It aired on ABC last night. And as NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says, the show had a few stumbles, the kind that happen when big companies tried to reinvent beloved franchises.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: There was a moment in ABC's "Little Mermaid Live!" that hinted at the great potential of this event, and it came courtesy of Queen Latifah playing the villainous sea witch Ursula.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID LIVE!")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (As Ursula, singing) They weren't kidding when they called me, well, a witch. But you'll find that nowadays I've mended all my ways, repented, seen the light, and made a switch to this.

DEGGANS: Initially known as a rapper, Queen Latifah showed off impressive vocal chops and a spellbinding stage presence in the popular number "Poor Unfortunate Souls," a gleefully wicked turn that brought the house down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID LIVE!")

LATIFAH: (As Ursula, singing) Flotsam, Jetsam, now I've got her, boys. The boss is on a roll. You poor, unfortunate souls.

DEGGANS: But her success also highlighted how ABC's "The Little Mermaid Live!" was really only about half that because the show mixed live musical numbers with a lot of scenes from the 1989 animated film, which delivered most of the dialogue and plot. The result was an experience that often felt like a ride at a Disney theme park - great for young fans, less so for more experienced eyes, even when star Auli'i Cravalho offered a note-perfect performance as the Little Mermaid herself, Ariel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID LIVE!")

AULI'I CRAVALHO: (As Ariel, singing) Up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun wandering free. Wish I could be part of that world.

DEGGANS: The real-life performers tried hard. Former "Glee" co-star Amber Riley belted her way through the opening number, "Daughters Of Triton," a spectacle where she was surrounded by mermaids suspended from the air and a dazzling set.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID LIVE!")

AMBER RILEY: (As self, singing) And then there is the youngest in her musical debut. A seventh little sister, we're presenting her to you to sing a song Sebastian wrote. Her voice is like a bell. She's our sister, Ariel.

DEGGANS: And John Stamos gamely waded through a slapstick performance as Chef Louis, revisiting a role he'd played before on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID LIVE!")

JOHN STAMOS: (As Chef Louis, singing) Les poissons, les poissons, how I love les poissons. Love to chop and to serve little fish.

DEGGANS: Though he did bungle an ad-lib at the end of his big number.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID LIVE!")

STAMOS: I knew I should have played Prince Albert.

DEGGANS: Everybody knows dreamy Prince Eric is the good guy here. Anyway, the show's high points left me wanting more live performance. Too much time was soaked up by clips of the 30-year-old movie. Constant commercial breaks filled with promos for other Disney products - the first one came about 12 minutes in - was irritating. And the less said about Shaggy's turn as the crab Sebastian, which left you wondering why ABC hired a guy who can't sing or dance to co-star in a musical, the better.

Back in the day before streaming and even VCRs, "The Wonderful World Of Disney" was a rare source of high quality children's TV, a way to welcome a bit of Disney magic into your home. So it makes all kinds of sense that the Walt Disney Company would try to revive this franchise for a new audience. But "The Little Mermaid Live!" mostly proved that ABC's next musical should go all-in on the live part, allowing talented performers to deliver a unique experience that can't be found on a VCR tape, streaming service or DVD. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID LIVE!")

CRAVALHO: (As Ariel, singing) I don't know when, I don't know how. But I know something's starting right now. Watch and you'll see... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.