|DVD Romantic Comedy|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 16 March 1999|
Splash was the first for many landmarks: the first PG-rated movie released by Disney studios, the first release under their Touchstone label, Tom Hanks’ first starring movie role, and Ron Howard’s first big-studio film as director. Howard had directed a Roger Corman low-budgeter and a couple of TV movies; Hanks had appeared in a TV movie and a little-known slasher/horror movie, He Knows You’re Alone. Daryl Hannah had made a few more movies, including a memorable appearance in Blade Runner.
This sweet little comedy about a man and a mermaid was a smash hit, instantly establishing Hanks and Howard (less so Hannah) as bankable commodities. Hanks cruised on for a few years as leading man in a series of comedies, then transformed himself into one of Hollywood’s leading dramatic actors. He’s had one of the most surprising and gratifying careers of the last 20 years. Howard, too, has soldiered on; most of his features have been both well-regarded and popular.
Hindsight is a wonderful gift; you can look at Splash now and see where all of these people were going, but it wasn’t that easy in 1984. Sure, almost everyone enjoyed Splash and it remains an easy movie to like. Howard made more of an impression with Splash than Hanks did; he was helped by being so familiar to so many people from appearing in two successful TV series, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days,” as well as being one of the leads in American Graffiti. Hanks was known (if at all) for “Bosom Buddies,” a gimmicky (but not bad) TV sitcom.
On its initial release, however, Splash surprised everyone. Howard’s direction is confident, professional and even relaxed. He does resort to a half-hearted car chase as the movie’s climax, but most of the movie deals with the characters and their reactions to the presence of a mermaid among them. This wasn’t the first try at this sort of thing; the British Miranda (and its sequel, Mad About Men) and the American Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, were successful in the late 1940s.
It was about time for another romantic mermaid comedy—but Brian Grazer (who came up with the idea) wasn’t the only one hoping to get such a film before the public. His rivals were much more high-powered: Warren Beatty wanted to star in a mermaid movie written by Robert Towne. But Splash got there first—and alone, since Beatty dropped his project. Grazer and others talk about this in the very well-produced documentary, “Making a Splash,” included in this DVD package.
Splash is still charming; it combines both a realistic/romantic depiction of New York city and a fairy tale-like story of a mermaid who loves a human being. They first meet when young Allen Bauer plunges from the ferry into the Atlantic off the Cape Cod ferry. He sees an enchanting girl his own age before he’s rescued by his frantic parents—but only we see that she has the tail of a fish.
Years later, Allen (now Hanks) and his madcap, womanizing brother Freddie (John Candy) run the family’s produce business in the shipping area of Manhattan. Freddie blithely flits from woman to woman, but Allen hopes to find the love of his life—and he’s been notably unsuccessful so far. Impulsively, he returns to Cape Code, where he briefly encounters serious scientist Kornbluth (Eugene Levy). Allen ventures out in a small boat, but falls overboard, losing his wallet in the process. He’s vaguely aware of being taken ashore by a beautiful blonde, but she flees back to the sea when he wakes up. (Her tail turned into legs when she went ashore, then back to a tail in the water.)
Allen’s dream girl, clutching his wallet, comes ashore on Liberty Island, surprising groups of tourists. (Howard makes excellent use of many New York landmarks.) She sets out in search of Allen; when she’s picked up by the cops, they find his wallet and call him. She immediately seduces the surprised and happy Allen—several times (offscreen)—but he has to leave her in his apartment to go back to work.
By the time he returns, she’s wandered down to Bloomingdale’s, where she intently watches display TVs for hours. When Allen finds her, she’s learned to talk English; she needs a name, and as they pass a particular street, she chooses Madison. (In the documentary, Hannah reveals that over the years since Splash was released, she’s been introduced to hundreds of little girls named “Madison” after her character.)
The primary weakness of Splash is that screenwriters Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel and Bruce Jay Friedman could not smoothly work the necessary conflict into their script. Kornbluth reappears, convinced that Madison is indeed a mermaid; he plots cumbersome ways of dousing her with water to force her tail to reappear. Also, for what seems to be arbitrary reasons, Madison must return to the sea in a week, or remain human forever.
Both of these plot devices feel like nothing other than contrivances necessary to give a rising motion to the story’s arc. However, the first time people watch Splash, they’re not likely to notice, or care if they do notice, that these elements seem artificial, as do the restrictions we learn late: Allen can go into the sea with Madison, as her presence seems to allow him to breathe water, but he can never return to shore. (But they both did, in the made-for-TV sequel, Splash, Too, of 1988).
The movie itself is breezy, warm and funny, with charming performances—Hannah’s best until Kill Bill—and appealing characters. It has a light, graceful flow that’s almost as magical as Madison herself. It’s great fun.
Tom Hanks is ideally cast as the looking-for-love-in-all-the-wrong-places Allen. He’s naturally charming, but also has excellent comedy timing. He’s a bit too much of the overgrown kid (remember “Big”?) to have become a star in the Cary Grant mold; he’s much more like Jimmy Stewart or Jack Lemmon. But he plays Allen without a single false note—even though he couldn’t have been as confident and relaxed as he appears.
John Candy is outstanding as Allen’s goofball brother, given to fast cars and dropping coins (so he can look up dresses). We gradually realize that Freddie is a bit more than he appears; he’s actually an astute businessman, and he deeply cares for his younger brother. This is one of Candy’s best movie performances, and makes his early death seem even more tragic. As usual, Levy’s performance feels too much like a sketch character, but also as usual, he’s appealing. Most other roles are secondary.
Included on the DVD are some screen tests for both Hanks and Hannah, and it’s easy to see from these videotaped sessions why Howard and producer Grazer chose these two actors. It’s also true that, like the movie itself, these screen tests run just a bit too long. On the other hand, the documentary on the making of Splash is full of information and relaxed good humor, including interviews with Howard, Grazer, Ganz, Mandel, Levy, Hannah and even Hanks. All speak fondly of the making of the film, which evidently was as much fun as watching it.
We learn that both John Travolta and Michael Keaton were considered for the role of Allen, while Hanks himself was first thought of to play Freddie. Hannah did almost all her underwater work (there’s plenty of undersea footage, shot in the Bahamas), partly because she had a mermaid fixation from childhood. The commentary track is lively and entertaining, four guys who’ve known each other for years (Ganz and Mandel wrote for “Happy Days”) and are having a grand time revisiting a favorite project.
The film looks great; the colors are not natural, but heightened throughout, from the impossibly blue sea, to the streets of New York, to Madison’s salmon-pink tail. (Built by effects creator Robert Short.) The sound is, as common these days, Dolby 5.1, with the image enhanced for 16X9 sets. It’s a handsome package, ideal summer viewing.
As good as Hanks, Hannah and Candy are, the most impressive aspect of Splash is Howard’s confident direction; the movie would not have worked so well had it been treated as the slapstick comedy it easily could have been. Instead, it’s gentle and romantic, focusing on the character’s emotions but not adding to them. The movie and characters are so engaging and likable that you relax into watching it, completely trusting this team, and wanting to see where it goes.