4 out of 5 stars

Five years before Walt Disney Animation made their classic film The Little Mermaid (1989), Touchstone Pictures, a Disney subsidiary, released the live-action romantic comedy Splash. Starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, the film tells the story of a modern-day love affair between a New York City produce salesman and a mermaid.

As the first film released by Touchstone Pictures, it went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of 1984, joining the ranks of films like The Terminator, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters. Perhaps surprisingly, considering its lighter tone, it was also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay’ at the Academy Awards that year, losing out to Places in the Heart.

After bouncing around in development for a few years, the film found a director in Ron Howard, who turned down Mr. Mom (1983) and Footloose (1984) to helm this interspecies love story. Before settling on the two eventual leads, a coterie of other mid-1980s stars were considered. Among them were Chevy Chase (Caddyshack), Bill Murray (Meatballs), and Michael Keaton (Mr. Mom) for the role of Allen, and Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Saturday Night Live), and Diane Lane (Rumble Fish) for the role of Madison. Rounding out the delightfully quirky supporting cast are Eugene Levy (National Lampoon’s Vacation) as eccentric scientist Dr Kornbluth and the ever-charming John Candy (Stripes) as Allen’s goofy older brother, Freddie.

The story opens in 1964. An eight-year-old boy called Allen (David Kreps) jumps off the pleasure cruiser his family is taking around Cape Cod and comes face-to-face with a young mermaid (Shayla MacKarvich). 20 years flash by, and a grown-up Allen (Hanks) now runs the family fruit and vegetable business with his brother, yet worries he’ll never truly find love. After escaping back to Cape Cod following a break-up, he falls into the water again, only to be rescued by the very same mermaid (Hannah). She then turns up, stark naked, at the Statue of Liberty holding his wallet, searching for him.

After Allen rescues her from the New York City police station, the two are instantly smitten with each other, and a whirlwind romance begins. Brimming with all the hallmarks of an ’80s film—shopping centres, jazzercise, and wisecracking cab drivers for good measure—the story zips along with easy laughs and a touch of slapstick humour as the pair frolic around the city. The film is awash with cinematic magic and logic, blissfully unconcerned with realism, preferring instead to whisk the audience away on a fun and frothy escapade, from the sea and back again. Our mermaid in disguise learns to speak English in one afternoon by watching the television, and chooses her name by strolling down Madison Avenue.

Her name, Madison, is intended as a joke, and in 1984 it landed as such. Given that Madison Avenue is of course named after President James Madison, it wasn’t considered a first name, let alone a female one. But as a result of the film’s popularity, the name became more widespread. So much so that many viewers today will miss the humour in the scene, as the name is now reportedly ranked in the Top 100 names for girls! This anecdote exemplifies the film’s charm, which elevates rather uninspired material to the status of a heartwarming classic.

Once Allen and Madison get to know each other a little better, she reveals that she only intends to stay in New York for “six fun-filled days” before returning home. Where that home might be remains a mystery that Allen blithely accepts, until he starts to truly fall for her. He begins to wonder where she really comes from and what she might be hiding from him. On an impulse, and as a ploy to get her to stay, Allen asks her to marry him, which she eventually and hesitantly accepts. Wanting to tell him the truth but fearing his reaction to her secret, she promises to tell him everything before they say “I do.”

A charming and gentle love story, the film has retained its popularity and cultural cachet thanks to its winning leads and comforting comedic style. The humour in the film is simple yet effective, and it avoids the cringe-worthy moments that plague other films of its era thanks to its earnest outlook and rejection of sarcasm.

Some of these bits strain as the film goes on, as the story drags. This prompts the use of some strange plot devices to raise the stakes and move the story along. Would anyone really believe that a mermaid wouldn’t know that water freezes into ice, as Madison tells Allen while ice skating at Rockefeller Center? Still, its sillier moments only add to its charm, and the simplicity of the premise and approach make for an enjoyable and uncomplicated watch.

The film received strong box office takings and positive reviews from critics, who commended the chemistry between the two lead actors, still relatively early in their careers. 40 years later, its enduring appeal stems from a certain nostalgia for the period and the filmmaking style. While now out of fashion, it originates from a time when silliness could still hold broad appeal, and when seriousness, spectacle, and stardom weren’t always the winning formula. Though clearly a product of its era (brimming with ’80s aesthetics and humour), it’s nonetheless remained a classic.

Like any film that becomes synonymous with a particular point in time, Splash feels as though it could only have been made in 1984. It was a period in Hollywood where romantic comedies could shift significant numbers at the box office, and before cynicism and self-referential humour spoiled the straightforward enjoyment of a simple, albeit far-fetched, love story. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in entertainment value, and has earned its place amongst the ranks of family-friendly films in the Disney pantheon. It may not have turned the cultural tide, but Splash still enchants.

USA | 1984 | 111 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH SWEDISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Ron Howard.
writers: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel & Bruce Jay Friedman (screen story by Bruce Jay Friedman; story by Brian Grazer).
starring: Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Doody Goodman, Shecky Greene, Richard B. Schull, Bobby Di Cicco & Howard Morris.