Splash (1984)

Splash marks the first feature release from Disney’s more mature-brand subsidiary in the movie-making business, Touchstone Pictures, proving to be a huge hit in their departure from kid-friendly features, cracking the top 10 in terms of domestic box office receipts, and winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical. Despite more adult language, underlying sensuality, and flashes of nudity (though not overly much, using her long hair and some judicious camera angles to avoid it as much as possible), it does follow a bit of the Disney fairy-tale plot.

Allen Bauer (Hanks, Dragnet) is a fruit wholesaler who is unlucky in love, fresh from being dumped by his girlfriend to to a lack of attention and inability to commit. He decides he wants to get away from it all and return to Cape Cod, the place where he almost drowned as a young boy only to be saved by an equally young mermaid. Upon trying to get to the island, he falls overboard once again (he can’t swim) only to be saved by the same mermaid (Hannah, Blade Runner), now all grown up. Later, she finds his wallet and takes a trip to New York to try to find him (her fish tail turns to human legs when dry), and when they are together they fall in love. Problems ensue when she still hasn’t told Allen she is a mermaid, she must return to the sea within a few days or die, and a pesky scientist (Levy, Club Paradise) out to make a name for himself by exposing to the world who she really is.

Darryl Hannah delights in her breakthrough role as the “fish out of water” mermaid later dubbed Madison (which apparently sparked the name to become popular among American newborn girls; her mermaid name is not only unpronounceable, but will shatter glass when uttered aloud).  She’s fun, lighthearted, funny, romantic, and playfully innocent, while never losing a certain uninhibited sex appeal that is critical for the role to work.  Unfortunately, future endeavors wouldn’t capitalize on her strengths, and Splash will likely remain Hannah’s defining role in the minds of many who’ve followed her career. A boyishly charming Tom Hanks would prove here that he is ready to take on the A-list leading man role, reportedly taking on the film after many comedic leading men passed on it.  Perennial scene-stealer John Candy (Stripes) also delivers an energetic comedic performances as Allen’s loutish, id-propelled brother, Freddie, who, nevertheless, looks out for him through thick and thin.

Directed by Ron Howard (Grand Theft AutoApollo 13), who earned some comedy kudos for his work on Night Shift two years prior, the actor-turned-filmmaker plays delightfully on the border between romance and screwball comedy, offering sweet and funny sequences, such as a trip to Bloomingdale’s in order for Madison to try to make herself up as a land-walking woman in a sophisticated New York City, or a trip to a seafood restaurant that reveals that the mermaid has a much different way of eating lobster than humans traditionally would (Hannah, a vegetarian, ate tofu, potatoes and heart of palm, though she anguished over the lobsters who died to provide the shells for the scene).  Given his lifelong experience as an actor, Howard is a director known for allowing his cast to riff liberally, breathing their own personalities into the ready-made roles, which works very well in allowing us to instantly identify with characters that might have some across thinly without some looseness in their deliveries.  The Oscar-nominated script comes from the writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, along with Bruce Jay Friedman.  Howard would reunite with Hanks much further down the road for The Da Vinci Code, and its (thus far) two sequels, though, disappointingly, those films fail to recapture the chemistry and charisma brought forward by their first pairing.

The practical effects involving the switch from legs to fish tail are convincing enough, mostly because the metamorphosis is wisely kept off of the screen and into our own imaginations.  What’s more impressive are the many scenes of Hannah, an experienced scuba diver, and stunt people swimming around with that fish tail on, looking like the up-and-down motion truly propels the mermaid into swimming at a good clip.  The many underwater acting scenes must have been physically demanding as well, requiring Howard and the cast and crew to get certified in scuba, but, again, look as effortless as they should for the purposes of making the mermaid seem more at eas in the water than out of it.

Splash becomes less fun or interesting when the subplot involving Walter Kornbluth, the scientist trying to “out” the mermaid for all to see, and who plans to put her into a research facility that will likely lead to her ultimate demise.  Eugene Levy is fine in the role (interestingly, Levy’s “SCTV” colleague, Candy, when first reading the script, wanted to play the Kornbluth role), but his character is deliberately unlikeable, so the laughs aren’t generated to the degree his inclusion might suggest, regardless of how many pratfalls he must take to shore up the comedy.  The subplot also adds to the total run time, which, for a romantic comedy, is about 20 minutes longer than the norm, so the unnecessary emphasis on the thriller elements that begin to dominate the film in the final act seem to undermine the overall pleasures of the film’s build-up.  Luckily, for the film’s reputation, most viewers have fond memories of all of the fun and romantic elements in the premise and have long since forgotten the darker detours in the final act.

Although the story elements are contrived and often times far-fetched, even though the film is a fantasy, the charming nature of the characters and the potency of the comedy is able to elevate Splash into becoming one of the more well-liked films of the 1980s.  Hanks is winning, Candy is hilarious, Hannah is endearing, and Ron Howard keeps it all together with enough momentum to overcome the pitfalls of the leaden finale.  Characterizations are the key to good comedy, and thanks to a talented troupe, a committed director, and a funny script, Splash emerges as of the more delightful rom-com concoctions of the 1980s.

— Followed in 1988 by a made-for-TV sequel without the main cast or crew (save for Dody Goodman), Splash, Too.

Qwipster’s rating: A-

MPAA Rated: PG for brief nudity and language
Running Time: 111 min.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Darryl Hannah, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Dody Goodman, Shecky Greene
Small role: Clint Howard

Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, Bruce Jay Friedman