Before watching the movie:
It’s easy to forget that Tom Hanks is in this movie because he’s overshadowed by two big stories: “Disney creates the Touchstone label to distance its core brand from edgier stuff like Splash“, and “Daryl Hannah is gorgeous”.
I think that before The Little Mermaid, it was a common assumption that mermaids were blonde, but I understand that there was a point when this movie owned the image of what a mermaid looked like to the extent that mermaids were blondes because Madison was a blonde, instead of the other way around.
I expect that 28 years later, this movie will look like a soft PG that you might see on Nickelodeon in the afternoon.
After watching the movie:
Allen Bauer’s girlfriend just moved out because he didn’t love her. He’s devastated by the realization that he might be incapable of being in love, and for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, heads to Cape Cod for some soul-searching, where he has an accident and is rescued by a mysterious woman who jumps into the water and swims away. Unbeknownst to him, she is a mermaid, and has a fish tail when wet and legs when dry. A few days later, she shows up in New York, unable to speak English, and carrying only Allen’s wallet as any clue to what to do with her. She quickly learns most of the basics about Allen’s world (mastering English from 6 hours of television), and, while she won’t tell Allen where she’s from, she does tell him that she can only spend six days with him. He falls in love with her in half that time. Meanwhile, an eccentric scientist who saw her in the water is out to prove there is a mermaid in town, even if he has to douse every blonde in New York City.
This movie runs on the kind of dramatic irony I hate. Madison won’t tell Allen she’s a mermaid, which creates the main source of tension because she can’t tell him why she can’t stay more than a week when he’s begging her to marry him. (Incidentally, I thought it was unclear what her time limit was for. I thought it was that she’d be fully human and unable to go home, but it hints slightly more strongly that she’ll die if she doesn’t get back in the sea.) Then the last act makes a shift like Howard the Duck from “people from different worlds fall in love” to “the military is going to keep her in their lab at any cost for no other reason than that’s what the government does”. It feels like they dropped part of E.T. into the story.
However, before that happens, the core of the movie is the love story, which Hanks is there to sell. This seems to be the moment when he learned to be the straight character in a comedy, which from there eventually turned into dramatic roles. Daryl Hannah is at her best acting like a perky tourist from another planet, but she portrays her needless angst well too. John Candy’s lothario manchild plays more like Allen’s cousin than his brother (though I suspect that’s largely because of the physical mismatch), but he gets his moment of maturity later. I really should know more about Eugene Levy. He was a big name back then, and I think I’ve seen him both as he looked at the time of the movie and how he looks now several times before, but I never really noticed him until now.
When it comes to the rating and the Touchstone label, the content feels like they were reveling a bit in what they could get away with in the freedom that comes from not clinging to the squeaky-clean Disney image. There is some language early on, and the big issue is Madison’s nudity, but mostly it’s just suggestive situations and dialogue. If it came out today, the nudity would be just enough to tip it into a soft PG-13. They’d probably either cut it down for a hard PG or bump up everything a bit to fully own the higher rating, which I’d somewhat prefer since this is definitely an adult story, and while I may disagree with the convention, the ratings do imply the intended audience. In the 70s, it would likely have gotten a G and just marketed toward grown-ups.
While I’m a bit turned off by the way the unexplained part of the fantasy ends up more “vague” than “mysterious”, overall this is a funny, enjoyable, and modern retelling of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, with the slight twist being that it’s told from the human’s perspective.
Watch this movie: as an angsty romantic comedy
Don’t watch this movie: for John Candy. As the biggest, most expensive star in the cast, he gets the least screentime.