Thursday, August 28, 2014

Splash: A Twist on the Little Mermaid Fairytale

I recently watched the film Splash for the first time in twenty years or so. It was every bit as enjoyable as I'd remembered, but what I noticed this time that I hadn't really picked up on as a child is the fairy-tale nature of the story. Splash takes Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and turns it into what Bruno Bettelheim might consider a true fairy tale, while updating it to the modern age.

The story starts out in the past, communicated by sepia-toned film and extra-sparkly water. Allen Bauer is a little boy on a boat, fascinated by something he sees out in the water. When he jumps in the water, his parents understandably freak out. However, the underwater shot shows him to be safe, floating effortlessly just beneath the surface, gazing into the eyes of a young mermaid who smiles at him. When he is retrieved from the water, the mermaid cries.

Flash-forward twenty years. Allan Bauer, played by an adorably awkward Tom Hanks, is a successful business-owner in New York City. He ends up falling into the ocean again and is rescued by the same mermaid, all grown up and played by Daryl Hannah, who is incandescent. This time, the mermaid decides that she loves Allan and that she wants to be with him, so she takes the form of a human woman with legs.

Allan and the mermaid, who takes the name Madison after Madison Avenue, spend a delightful few days in NYC. She learns English after only a few hours of watching television, and struggles to understand the human/American cultural norms she is surrounded by, such as wearing clothing, not eating lobster with your hands, etc. However, she is clear about the terms of their relationship: she has to leave after six days, or she can never return to where she came from. Allan thinks that there's just an immigration problem, so he offers to marry her. Before they can do this, however, she is doused with water and captured by a kooky scientist, played by Eugene Levy, who is ecstatic that he can now prove the existence of mermaids.

Splash mirrors the tale of The Little Mermaid in several ways. The mermaid saves the human man; she goes on land to be with him; but the terms of her time on land have limits After all, as Walter would say, "this is not 'Nam; there are rules" ... just as in every fairy tale or magical bargain. Apparently the movie originally even included a scene in which mermaid-Madison visits a sea-hag to make the bargain. However, the rule here does not mandate that she can't talk; it just puts a time limit on what Andersen makes clear--that once you become human, you never go back. The movie also anticipates the later Disney film, with the whimsical scenes portraying Madison's encounter with human culture. It's not too far a leap to imagine Madison trying to comb her hair with a fork, like Ariel. 

The big difference between Splash and Andersen's version is that Splash has a happy ending. But the ending doesn't involve the mermaid staying on land; it involves Allan going into the sea, to join Madison there. For him, the terms are the same: he can't go home. 

It's interesting that the ultimate transformation happens to him, and not her. This flipped ending makes me reevaluate the film's message entirely; rather than being a fairy-tale about a mermaid, it's a fairy-tale about a man. At the beginning of the film, Allan's burden is that he cannot love. Through the journey of his relationship with Madison, he learns that he can--and the effect of that knowledge is a transformation.

I also like how, even though the story is modernized, the film is book-ended with two underwater sequences that preserve the dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere of the fairy-tale. 

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