Before 'The Shape of Water', There Was 'Splash'
Quick disclaimer: I am not accusing The Shape of Water of copying Splash. Not at all. When working with mermaids, there are always going to be certain tropes and themes that are reused. It's unavoidable. And the more mermaid movies the better, as far as I'm concerned!
I have always had an unhealthy obsession with mermaids. I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps because they are magical, beautiful, and let's face it, living under the sea would be really awesome.
When I was a child, I loved Splash. I think romantic comedies with a dash of fantasy have always been my thing, which is why those are mostly the sorts of books I write now. The romance part makes such films heart-warming. The comedy makes them fun. And the fantasy makes them magical.
It's A Fairy Tale for Adults
Much like The Shape of Water, Splash is a fairy tale for adults.
The human main character, Allen Bauer, (played by Tom Hanks) is lonely and upset that he will never fall in love. What's worse, he has to watch it happening for everyone around him on a daily basis. In the opening of the film, his girlfriend dumps him over the phone (not even to his face!) and he attends another couple's happy wedding, where he is shouting and hilariously bitter.
Later, Allen is drunk in a bar, ranting with his face in the pretzel bowl about how much he wants to fall in love and how he's tired of watching it happen for everyone else. It's supposed to be a message that everyone in the audience can relate to.
It's Also Sex Positive
The mermaid (played by the lovely Daryl Hannah) loses her beautiful orange tail, grows legs, and sloshes ashore to find Allen.
The second she finds him, she wants to bang his brains out. And it's great.
No one shames her. No one utters the word "slut." Allen doesn't act as if Madison's open and bold desire for him means she must grow human legs for every man that comes along.
Madison is treated like her sexual desire is normal and healthy. It is never presumed that she is given to infidelity because she has a healthy libido.
In short, Madison is allowed to express herself without a bunch of misogynistic bullcrap. But there's a reason behind why she was presented this way, and it has little to do with feminism (the feminism was just a nice side benefit).
To Madison, sex with Allen is a primal need. Because she is not human but a mermaid, she is presented as having more basic, animal-like, primitive desires. She is pure and innocent in that regard, and views Allen as her mate, having remembered him from when she saved him from drowning as a child.
Mmm. I Kinda Want Lobster For Dinner Now
Aside from the hilarious scene where a sexually voracious Madison devours Allen's face, Madison eating a lobster with her bare hands while the entire restaurant stares will always make me laugh every time.
I especially love the scene where Allen asks Madison to marry him and she says no. Allen then gets upset because he knows Madison is lying to him about something and wants her to tell him the truth.
It was good to have a scene like this because a romantic couple that never argues is not only unrealistic but disgustingly saccharine. I was glad that Allen didn't take the lies lying down and that Madison was forced to confront herself and how she was hurting him. At the same time, the audience can't help but pity Madison: how do you tell someone you're a mermaid?
And like the typical Cinderella story, Madison has only got so long before the ball is over and she loses her slippers . . . er, legs.
Allen feels so bad about arguing with Madison that he wanders in the rain all night looking for her. Meanwhile, Madison considers going back to the ocean. She has realized that her lies are hurting Allen and that she should either tell him the truth or leave him -- which is what a person does when they love and respect someone. Love doesn't deceive. And love cares about the other person's feelings.
By the end of the night, Madison decides to give up being a mermaid and tell Allen the truth if it will make him happy. She is somehow able to find him while he is still wandering the street in search of her, and I think I understand why.
It is implied several times throughout the movie that Madison has a psychic connection to Allen and knows how he feels because he is her mate. This is something that probably became solidified when they were children and she saved his life.
When Allen later realizes that Madison is a mermaid, he reacts in a very human way, and -- again -- I'm glad that they didn't go the unrealistic route and have him immediately accept her. I'm glad that Allen was conflicted and was even angry that he'd been lied to, to the point that he was ready to leave Madison to die when she is captured by scientists.
It is all very realistic (I mean Allen being mad, not the . . . other stuff). To Allen, he's just been told that he's been sleeping with someone who isn't even human. She could have given him a fatal disease or maybe even accidentally harmed him. And he didn't know because she was lying about who she was.
I love the part where Allen's brother (played by the wonderful John Candy) gives Allen a good talking to and reminds him that what he's got is something that doesn't happen everyday. It's love.
After this, Allen decides to stop moping and save Madison's life.
Like The Shape of Water, there is an "evil" scientist who has a change of heart. When he realizes Madison -- this innocent sentient person -- is going to be dissected for study, he tries to protect her, and in the end, he helps her escape at the risk of his own life, thus redeeming himself in the most hilarious way (it involved a lot of slapstick humor and quite likely a body cast).
It is revealed at the end of the movie that Allen can live with Madison in the sea so long as he stays with her and receives her Magic Kiss.
They then escape together and live happily ever after.
Again, like The Shape of Water.
I love the Magic Kiss in stories. And I'm a sucker for stories where the human joins the mermaid in the sea.
I always thought it was kinda crappy that Ariel was expected to give up everything to become human, and Prince Eric never once offered to join her under the sea -- which King Triton could have done for him.
Then again, Eric and Ariel never even really spoke to each other. So there's that.
There's also the fact that Prince Eric was a prince and couldn't leave his kingdom, while Ariel had, like, sixteen sisters or something.
Either way, I love it when the human joins the mer . . . person. There's something magical about escaping the dull nine to five world to live in a beautiful underwater world instead.
In a direct reverse of Disney's The Little Mermaid, Allen gives everything up to live with Madison in the sea. Here, the line is blurred between love and sacrifice.
But that's the way it is in fairy tales.