I really like mermaids. Or, more to the point, I really like two particular mermaid movies.
I think the connection we oddballs have with mermaids is to do with their split nature. Shakespeare describes men as having “One foot in sea, and one on shore, to one thing constant never” and mermaids are the same. They get to experience the best of both worlds… and then they have to make a choice. Usually love is involved. In the case of Hans Christian Andersen’s original Mermaid, she chooses love and is rewarded with death. No boyfriend, no soul, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred pounds. As Ursula the Sea Witch so articulately puts it in The Little Mermaid, “Life’s full of tough choices, innit?”
Ron Howard’s naive and cockle-warming Splash (1984) and the frankly flawless The Little Mermaid (1989) are more closely connected than they may at first seem. For starters, both movies technically belong to Disney. The screenplay for Splash was, in fact, the reason why Disney invented Touchstone, so that they could make a PG film which features the concept of Daryl Hannah’s lady lumps without marring the good Disney name. The Little Mermaid was made several years after Splash, and therefore is understandably influenced by it on some level, even if the influence is Disney’s willingness to do something different. For example, a willingness to design Ariel’s character slightly differently from the blonde, buxom stereotype Madison is so close to.
So, in the interest of fairly comparing the two, I have cunningly devised several criteria: Love, Leg Envy, La-la-la-la-la-la-las (stay with me), Leading Ladies and the Last Scene.
As far as I’m concerned this is always the most important ingredient in a film and neither of the flicks in question disappoint on this front. Tom Hank’s watery-eyed portrayal of Allen Bauer, a man who finds himself deeply besotted when he comes into contact with his dream girl is just lovely. Both he and Ariel harbour a crush-like affection for their leading significant others, and this affection then grows into a romance which defies all odds. For me, The Little Mermaid is the ultimate love story.
- Leg Envy
Both mermaids have a fascination with what they don’t naturally have; legs. Madison is given a glass dome by Allen which contains two mechanised dancers. Similarly, in the “Part of Your World” sequence, Ariel is shown rolling her eyes longingly towards two wind-up dancers which she has salvaged and hidden in her grotto. Subsequently, the idea of dancing, especially dancing with a dishy man, is idealised. The fulfilment of this wish is seen most satisfyingly in the ice skating scene in Splash, where Madison and Allen -take to the ice together. I always find this scene especially tear-enticing because of the moment when Allen clocks an older couple who are skating together and realises that, if Madison can’t stay with him, he will never experience growing old with the woman he loves. Equally satisfying however, is when Ariel finally gets to dance with Prince Eric in the ‘Tour of the Kingdom’ sequence in The Little Mermaid. This scene is especially complimented by Menken’s amazing score. I would argue that both films are even on this point.
There are some surprising little moments, where the score of both films feel rather similar. Ultimately though, there’s just no contest; The Little Mermaid was always going to win this one. The Disney musical double-act of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are undefeatable and songs such as “Part of your world”, “Under the sea” and “Kiss the girl” are popular the world over.
- Leading Ladies
In both cases, the lady makes the first move. Madison and Ariel have both made some kind of time sensitive deal in order to pursue the man of their dreams and both are subsequently quite forceful in pursuit of their chosen male. In addition to this, both show such watchable child-like wonder at the new land-based worlds they experience. In my view, Madison has the slight advantage in this category. When faced with the concept of eating a crab, Ariel is spared, Sebastian has escaped. Madison, however, grabs that lobster with both hands and bites her way straight through the shell. Now that’s a dinner-date.
- Last Scene
In the finale of The Little Mermaid, Ariel bids her dad and her sisters farewell in order to be with the man of her dreams, the gorgeous Prince Eric. In Splash, Allen leaves his land-based brother and leaps into the water to be with Madison forever. Good for him; even if the concept of being vivisected by curious scientists might have been a contributing factor. Allen Bauer scores another win for Splash.
So there we have it. The scores are even. The Little Mermaid is one of my favourite films of all time, and the experience of seeing it at the cinema is also my first memory (which dates me). It is a crucial part of the canon of classic animated Disney musicals, it signified a major comeback for the company and it has a lot of heart. The voice acting is wonderful across the board (Pat Carroll as Ursula is a particular favourite, and no one but Jodi Benson could do Ariel). Splash, however, remains a fond favourite, and is probably in my top three Tom Hanks films (alongside Big and the incomparable Mazes and Monsters). It features some impressive mermaid-transformation special effects, as well as a great performance from John Candy as Freddie Bauer, Allen’s brother, noteworthy in particular for the line he delivers in Swedish.