Judge Kerry Birmingham still can't believe that they use "Beyond the Sea" in commercials for cruise ships. What a depressing song. Have they never actually listened to it? I mean, really.
A fish-out-of-water comedy.
There's always the temptation to tear into a movie like this, made with good intentions and a mid-level studio budget, especially given that it's a movie about girls who befriend a mermaid and co-written by the writer of Bring It On. It's a kids' movie aimed at young girls, not rapidly aging, male critics. The instinct is to savage it for its simplistic platitudes, its throwback gender roles, its quaint portrayals of male-female dynamics…
Instead, we're going to play it just like the movie: Sweetly. But without crappy jokes about "shell phones." (See, instead of the word "cell" there, they put in "shell," because the mermaid uses a shell to…look, I can explain it later, okay?)
Facts of the Case
Claire (Emma Roberts, Nancy Drew) and Hailey (Joanna "JoJo" Levesque, RV) are BFF…best friends forever. But Hailey's mother has a new job waiting in Australia, and it looks as though the friends will be thousands of miles apart by the end of the summer. A violent storm at sea brings an unexpected visitor into their lives: a real, live mermaid named Aquamarine (Sara Paxton, Sleepover). Coming from a society with no concept of love, Aqua has only three days to prove to her father, an undersea monarch, that it exists…or return to face her arranged marriage. Aqua, with her ability to grant one wish to those who would aid her, may be just the answer Claire and Hailey have been looking for.
Aquamarine is the kind of film that's hard to evaluate from a critical standpoint. As a genre, kids' movies aren't really there to document the intricacies of human behavior or make a statement on the world. They're there to make a basic point, and have that point be received as plainly as possible by the target audience. To apply the same scrutiny as one would afford, say, Sophie's Choice is sort of a sour way to approach the film and, moreover, seems to miss the point entirely.
So in watching Aquamarine, aimed pretty squarely at young girls (which, despite any rumors you may have heard, I am not), I decided the best approach would be to evaluate it in terms of its effectiveness in getting its message across, the technical proficiency the filmmakers used in getting there, and the potential appeal to the demographic it's ostensibly made for.
Under these criteria, the film boils down to this: you could do worse. Almost by virtue of its genre, characters are portrayed in broad strokes that give the viewer just enough information to know who stands where and why. The viewer knows that the Paris Hilton-esque celebu-snob (Arielle Kebbel, John Tucker Must Die) is a villain to be reviled just as easily as they know that Hailey, Claire, and Aqua are good people by their working-class earnestness and sincerity. It's no surprise, then, that a significant amount of screen time is devoted to make-over and shopping montages, accompanied by inoffensive pop songs and the squeals of the camaraderie of young girls. Aquamarine presupposes that there's nothing objectionable about young girls acting like young girls, complete with random crushes and endearingly naive melodrama. It's a movie with no pretenses about its subject matter; it knows it's a silly confection and embraces that without a hint of irony or a labored sense of hipness.
Director Elizabeth Allen stages events with all appropriate bubbliness, providing the girls an idyllic beachfront club to grow up in and an all-purpose mop-haired boy to sigh after. There's nothing particularly visionary about her directorial style, nor is there anything to mark her as a hack. She benefits greatly from a few lovely, naturally photogenic locations and the smiling enthusiasm of her young cast. The girls giggle their way through an idealized version of the Florida coast (Australia substitutes here) where a disastrous storm can herald the arrival of both a new friend and the answer to their prayers. It's a movie where the just are rewarded and the guilty punished, and lessons are learned by all. If the movie has a major strength beyond its basic innocence, it's in the surprisingly unconventional ending. When Aqua, naive to the ways of surface-walker romance, throws herself at said mop-haired boy—the first she sees—then immediately asks, "Do you love me?," it comes off as foolish and possibly a little pathetic, but the expectation that two pretty people can be attracted to each other and immediately call it love isn't unheard of in simplified, idealized worlds like these (or in real life, for that matter). That Allen and the screenwriters subvert this expectation should be a relief to jaded viewers and progressive-thinking parents everywhere. Aqua may be the answer to Claire and Hailey's prayers, but she isn't the answer to all their problems. It's a happy ending—the just are rewarded, remember?—but it isn't an ending without a little stark maturity to cut through the saccharine.
Sound and picture quality are nominal for such a recent release, on both the wide- and full screen sides of the disc. The commentary track, with Allen and producer Susan Cartsonis, is, like the movie itself, breezy and bright. As directors go, Allen isn't Kubrick, so the commentary doesn't so much focus on the nuts-and-bolts of making the movie as much as the good time apparently had by all; the closest it gets to awkward is some semi-embarrassed talk about the lengths gone to make sure the frequently-nude Paxton's breasts were covered. Roberts, Levesque, and Paxton provide commentary for a selection of seven scenes that have the tone and general intellectual content of a teen sleepover. The "Awesome Auditions" featurette mostly covers Paxton's initial screen test, while the featurettes "Building the Capri Club," "Mermaid Makeover,"and "It's All About the Fashion" cover set construction, the mermaid costume, and wardrobe, respectively. "Aqua's Squeals" is a montage of Paxton, um, making noises, while "Kickin' It on the Set" is mostly between-takes footage. Six deleted scenes round out the extras. All of the features are included on the Widsecreen side of the disc, while only a few of the same features make it onto the Full Screen side.
Whatever its deficiencies, Aquamarine is far too well-meaning to be counted as a failure. It's technically sound, if unremarkable, and it's hard to object to a lesson on the value of friendship. This is a movie for which the phrase "Good for what it is" handily applies. It's more palatable than, say, an Olsen Twins movie, but far from occupying the same classic space as any number of other kids' films or girls' coming-of-age movies. Anyone with "tween" daughters or grand-daughters should find this film to be suitable viewing, light entertainment with a moral and everything. More sensitive parents might react badly to the sheer amount of ultra-sugary sweetness being forced down their throats here. Consult a physician.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Shell phone" equals "cell phone." Funny.
I believe in love, but then I'm not as hard a sell as Aqua's father. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Elizabeth Allen and Producer Susan Cartsonis
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