RetroReviews #39: Splash (1984)



JUNE 24, 2013 SCREENING: SPLASH (1984)

Ah, the classic 1984 fantasy film Splash. How I loathe you. Well, it’s not that I hate this movie, but the movie is responsible for something I can’t stand. Prior to the release of Splash, the word “Madison” was place name used in honor of our fourth President, James Madison, rather than a first name for girls (as Tom Hanks rightfully points out in the movie) But the Mermaid in the film doesn’t have a human name, so she adapts the name “Madison” after Madison Ave. in New York. 30 years later, a bunch of other women decided it would make a cute name for their daughters as well. Damn you, Splash.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to rate the movie based on this bizarre side effect. Let’s take a look at the film in its own right. Splash is not a bad movie, but I would argue it’s not a very good one, either. There are parts of it that I liked, and parts that I didn’t like. First and foremost, the film is a romantic comedy. That part works. Tom Hanks, as a human named Allen, and Daryl Hannah as “Madison” the Mermaid, have some great chemistry together and the film is breezy, charming, and sweet. There is some nice one-liners from John Candy as the buddy, and the mermaid jokes work – like when Daryl Hannah starts screeching dolphin-like sounds and shatters TV’s when Tom Hanks asks what her name is in her own native language, or when she starts consuming a whole lobster at a restaurant, tail and all.

What didn’t work for me is the fantasy part of the story, and the mermaid angle. The basic premise is that her bottom half turns into human legs when she’s on land (presumably she must magically get a vagina on land too, since we see her naked from behind a few times and she has a butt when she’s on land). This felt like a cop-out to me, and I don’t think the film was following any traditional mythology of mermaids. If mermaids can magically turn human on land, do humans turn into mermaids when they enter the mermaid kingdom? The end of the movie seems to imply they do, since Tom Hanks goes off to live underwater with Daryl Hannah forever, and I doubt he could breathe that long. Most of the “turns human on land” stuff was used for comic relief and subplots where Tom Hanks tries to hide Madison and avoid getting her wet (apparently merely being splashed by water will turn her legs back into fish fins), and the only time I felt it really made the film interesting is when she was desperately trying to dry herself after taking a bath in his house. I also felt that Madison adjusted to human life far too easily, and it wasn’t believable for me that she has no problem interacting with humans in normal conversations and going about shopping around New York if she’s spent her whole life underwater. The Little Mermaid handled the same issues far better just five years later, and it was a kid’s cartoon (albeit a very high budget, state of the art one), and it gave us a valid reason why she had legs on land.

Interesting enough, this film got enormously popular reviews, and enjoys a 92% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What’s bizarre is the audience rating – its much lower and only 58% of audiences gave it a positive rating, so not even 3/5ths of viewers. Usually, the opposite is true (general audiences tend to be much more forgiving of films and easily entertained than professional critics are) I wonder if there’s some kind of breakdown where women liked it and men didn’t? I would personally rate Splash as nominally “positive”, though it wasn’t what I wanted and I’ve seen other Romantic Comedies that much more exciting and witty than this one. Another interesting note from all this is that Roger Ebert was one of only three critics on Rotten Tomatoes that gave Splash a negative review when it came out. He found Tom Hanks to be weak as the male lead. I thought Hanks was good here, but obviously he didn’t find his true calling until he moved away from silly comedies like this during the 90s. Although its a romantic comedy (95% of which are pretty much targeted to females), it’s also not exclusively a “chick film” –after all, the movie is from Tom Hanks’ POV, and there’s plenty here that guys can enjoy. I just ultimate felt unsatisfied and didn’t feel the film gave me what I wanted. I spent much more time learning about John Candy’s problems than I did about the culture and world that Daryl Hannah came from. For a movie that is built around how a human and a mermaid can have a life together, that’s simply unforgivable. Fun, cute, and watchable film? Yes. Good, worthwhile, intelligent film? Nope.

** out of ****


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