Allen Bauer thought he'd never find the right woman…he was only half wrong!
If there was one ideal of filmmaking that dominated the 1980s, it was the high concept movie. Usually predicated on a formula to maximize marketing while undermining talent, the larger than life premise usually boiled down to a simple twist on a classic tale or the turn of a particularly descriptive phrase: an ancient mummy comes back to life as a department store mannequin; two men, one a specimen of muscleman perfection, the other a fragile flawed human freak, are actually brothers. Add a name star or two, a dedicated director, and all the demographics that Hollywood's publicity machine could muster, and the results were usually pandering and predictable. Sometimes, something solid but very stilted was created. On other occasions, a Tinseltown atrocity unable to entertain even the brain dead masses was given an unwelcome birth. Somewhere lost between the imagined film and the pragmatic result, the luster dulled and the brilliance dimmed on what was supposed to be a sure-fire hit. This is one of the reasons why Splash is such a rarity. Helmed by the relatively untested Ron Howard (at the time) from a real fish out of water premise, and held together by mostly unknown actors, this story of a mermaid in Manhattan is the exception that defies the rule. Without resorting to elaborate special effects or wall-to-wall action scenes, this small romance between a lonely man and an ethereal being is beautiful, bawdy, and, sometimes, near brilliant. Viewed 20 years after it first hit theaters, none of its magic or mystery has faded. But those expecting the same amount of laugh-out-loud humor may be in for a slight surprise.
Facts of the Case
Allen Bauer and his brother Freddie run their late father's produce market in Manhattan. Allen can't seem to keep a girlfriend, while Freddie is the life of the world's party. After a co-worker's wedding, a depressed Allen takes off for Cape Cod, a place with many special memories for him. When he was younger, he jumped off a ferryboat and seems to recall a mystical experience. As fate would have it, he finds himself overboard again. But he does not die. He wakes on the beach of an island and sees a beautiful girl. He tries to get her name but she disappears back into the surf. Returning to the big city, he thinks he has lost the gal forever. So imagine his surprise when she turns up—naked!—near the Statue of Liberty, his missing wallet in her hands. Reunited, the couple falls instantly in love. But there is one catch. This newfound dream girl, this answer to his heartbroken prayers, is a mermaid.
That's right, a mermaid. Madison (as she later names herself) has been equally obsessed with Allen since they met. She wants to be with him forever, but she can only stay in town until the next full moon, which is only six days away. And then there is the evil scientist Walter Kornbluth. He has seen Madison before, and wants to prove that she is a mermaid to get the recognition he believes he deserves. So with limited time together and the threat of discovery around every corner, Madison and Allen seemed destined to be apart. But fate has a strange way of stepping in and reconfiguring events. Will Kornbluth get his way? Will Allen and Madison be together? Or will their inter-species relationship merely be a big Splash in the media?
Viewed through the wonderfully myopic eyes of a Monday morning cinematic quarterback, Splash seems like a no-brainer: An intriguing premise budding with possibilities, a cast of television talent brimming with wit and intelligence, a novice director who had cut his teeth with a couple of independent films and a well-regarded mainstream comedy, and a duo of script doctors/writers from the Happy Days/Laverne and Shirley dynamo of dominant sitcomedy. How could it fail? The answer is simple. First, Disney, a company that had, until recently, confused a field goal kicking mule with family comedy, was making it. Then there was the ever-present possibility that it could turn hopelessly hokey, filled with the kind of saccharine schmaltz Tinseltown shovels onto all fantasies. Splash could have been a half-baked flight of fancy where arcane mermaid laws were heralded by poorly rendered effects while so-called stars stretched the limits of credibility with their constant self-referential nods to the crowd. It was a gamble for sure—the elements had to click perfectly, or an awful log of dung could result, something like Date with an Angel or My Stepmother is an Alien. But just like Big would do for body switching movies four years later (and, interestingly, it starred Hanks as well), Splash showed how all other similar pieces of photoplay rubbish were ultimately ruined when decent ideas were beleaguered by unholy execution. Splash set a benchmark that few films have tried to topple. It is the rare high concept movie that breaks out of that exaggerated shell to become something more than its clever premise; in this case, a tender, bittersweet romantic comedy.
The reason Splash works so well is because it is a simple story told with realism and heart. As a filmmaker, Ron Howard bets on his characters and their centered, grounded qualities to make his movie work. He also knows that believability comes not only from acting, directing, and writing, but also from tone and atmosphere. Goof up your outrageous premise, and you get something dopey and dumb. So Howard keeps Manhattan as an actual player, having his delicate daydream play out against the backdrop of one of the great, gritty cities in the world. He also gives his characters sexual feelings and a way with witty, coarse language. He never once tries to introduce syrupy stupidity into the mix, like magical assistants (call it the Jiminy Cricket Syndrome, but most humanized fictional halfings require a tag along sidekick to make with the funny or the profound) or cartoonish co-creature creations. Instead, he takes the way-out ideal and simply sets it up like this: what would really happen, in the current world of 1984, should a mermaid appear on land? And it's this basic basis from which everything else flows. The comedy comes from the characterization (with a few well aimed zingers just to liven up the laughs) and all the individuals, from main participants to ancillary entities feel fleshed out and complete. The dedication to realism allows for the occasional flights of fancy to register with complete legitimacy, so Splash never looses its footing. For nearly two hours you are transported into the private passion of Madison and Allen, and the journey is brisk and bountiful…and we always believe it.
The acting is really excellent in this film. This is Tom Hanks before superstardom and the back-to-back gold statues mellowed his mannerisms. This is the hungry Hanks, the "aims to please" Hanks, the "ready to risk it all and never play it safe" Hanks. The dry, ironic smarm he brought to his role of Kip/"Buffy" in the highly underrated Bosom Buddies (a lost classic in the world of television comedy) is reinterpreted here as a man so lost in his own self-pity that he can't see the joy and the genuine affection that surrounds him. Allen is the very definition of a dreamer, and Hanks gives the character a cool, complicated charisma that deflects a great deal of his mopey misfortune. Hanks also proves why he is one of the definitive romantic leads of our time. He has an ability to sell head over heels adoration with just a crinkle of his nose, or a widenening of his eyes. In a long career of great performances, few remember his work in Splash, but his future success is all here, ready to be sampled in never neophyte doses. This is also John Candy at his big-hearted, fatheaded best. Channeling Johnny LaRue, his SCTV character with just enough good natured brotherly benevolence to balance out the bravado, he shows why he would go on to become a comedy superstar himself, worthy of having his name above the marquee. He injects all his scenes with the kind of chaotic yet controlled comedy that Second City did best. Another of his fellow Canadian cutups also shines in what is a very different role. Eugene Levy, wowing us recently with his brilliant turns in Christopher Guest's improvisational masterworks (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind) makes a serviceable if bumbling villain here. There is an undertone of menace and desperation in his mostly miserable man of science who can't seem to escape the slapstick results of his obsession.
But it's Darryl Hannah, the fragile, feminine fish woman in love with a land-locked loser, who really impresses with her performance. It is one of the few completely submerged characterizations in film. Hannah, who showed that replicants could be sexy and scary in Blade Runner, makes Madison a total innocent, never once implying modern cynicism or a knowledge of issues/ideas beyond her under sea experiences. Aside from being incredibly beautiful, both on land and under the water, she is graceful and athletic, powerful and poetic. It is her performance, more than the fake tail or attempted intricate effects work, that sells her as a fictional, mythological creature. When she is finally unveiled, the wounded look on her face says it all: Madison just wants to be with Allen and love him. Everything else is ancillary. Along with the chemistry she creates with Hanks (who must be some manner of animal magnet—Mr. Hanks seems to click with all of his leading ladies in a special, sensual manner) and her tender way with a joke, she makes us believe in this very strange, high concept premise. And she also does another vital, important thing: she makes us want to know more about her character and invest time in her quest. In combination with the script (a punchy, passionate job by Howard regulars Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) and the moviemaking, Splash is one of the few fantastical premises that actually works as something easily imagined in reality because of how honest the acting is.
Far from being his best directorial work, Splash still shows Ron Howard growing as an artist and as a filmmaker. Moving from a more situational comedy and action film background (no one would confuse Grand Theft Auto or Night Shift as visionary tour de forces) into screwball comedy with fantasy elements, Howard lays the groundwork here for his future box office bankability. Howard seems to understand instinctively how to make the surreal seem sane and the outrageous feel real. The result is a fantasy that has a feeling of authenticity, a true romance with some very wicked and wild things to say about love. Howard is also an expert director of humor. He has timing, honed from hundreds of hours of episodic television, and knows when to push a joke and when to pull back and let it play itself out. As for the comedy, it's safe to say that the gentle, genial boob tube style cleverness of Splash has become slightly dated over the decades. We now like a much crasser, in your face ideal of gross-out comedy. Aside from Candy's larger than life lunacy as Freddie, many of the once gut-busting moments are now nicely realized bits of pleasant fun. If you've never seen the film, you'll find yourself in hysterics on more than one occasion, but if you are an old fan hoping to rekindle you love of a seemingly hilarious hit, Splash may disappoint. It is definitely a smart and quick-witted romance, but you may question some of the significantly more subtle elements of humor.
Originally released by Touchstone (this was, by the way, the first Touchstone title ever released by Disney in theaters) in a non-anamorphic, bare bones DVD, the 20th Anniversary revamp of Splash is nice and compact. Between improvements in sound and image and a nice complement of bonus material, the new disc is really a gem. Splash was always a colorful, carefully filmed love story. It never had a harsh or flat feel like most manic comedies. So the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is wonderfully atmospheric, if a tad soft at times. Howard mentions in the full-length commentary that the movie was given a suppler, suggestive lighting style to evoke a wistfulness and ambience. Contrasts are low, but the picture never loses clarity or vibrancy. Same with the soundtrack. With a newly remastered 5.1 surround offering that actually gives all the channels a chance to shine (though most of the aural action still takes place in the front), Splash not only looks good, but sounds goods as well. Dialogue is never lost and the city elements of Manhattan are wonderfully distinctive.
But perhaps the biggest reason to revisit this disc (if you already own it) or purchase it for the first time is the wonderful extras offered here. Howard, producer Brian Grazer, along with writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, sit down for a full-length audio commentary that is part reminiscence, part instructional guide on how to create comedy, and part just long time friends sitting around shooting the bull. Their praise of SCTV and Candy/Levy is heartfelt and hysterical (describing a read through where the Canadian cut-ups read every other part except for the leads sounds like one of those "wish it were on tape" moments). Howard loves looking back at what he calls his "guerilla" phase of filmmaking, and Grazer jokes about how setups, captured then in a couple of hours in the streets of Manhattan, would now take the talented auteur a week to shoot on some overpriced studio lot. Everyone is in love with Darryl Hannah and sees the potential superstar in Hanks. Toward the end, they all become so involved in the film (Howard is seeing it for the first time since he made it 20 years ago) that the narrative lessens, but overall, it's a fine feature addition to the movie.
Complementing this alternative track is a behind the scenes documentary featuring Hanks, Hannah, Levy, and a lot of production anecdotes. Candy even appears in a clip from 1984, and everyone has the utmost respect for each other and the work. Just seeing the mega-star Hanks's obvious passion about this long past endeavor shows just how much of an impact it had on him and everyone else involved. Indeed, Splash launched several huge careers (almost everyone went on to substantial fame and fortune) and a movie studio. But no one downplays its importance as a movie, first and foremost, and that's why these bonuses are special. As for the rest of the material here, the introductions by Howard are happy and genuine. The audition tapes, badly aged and sometimes hard to hear, are still insightful for seeing how natural Hanks was before the camera, and how frail and friendly Hannah came across.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With all the commentary mentions of deleted scenes, missing elements, and even a secret desire to redo some of the effects, it's amazing how little of this re-imagining or originally deleted material appears on the disc. Touchstone, obviously tainted by its parent company's penny pinching, doesn't want to give an Academy award winning director, and his two time Oscar winning leading man, a little lucre to fix up one of their first films. Understandably, had a new re-release of Splash been announced with Spielberg/Lucas style reconfiguration and manipulation (removal of guns, upping the CGI ante), fans and purists would have been outraged. But if there are elements (like the Sea Hag, or scenes between Candy and Hanks) that merely need a clean up and conversion, why not open up the vaults and provide the content? DVD was made for such moviemaking leftovers. Sadly, all we get are mentions and brief glimpses of some of the departed material. Touchstone should have put more effort into completing this disc's dimensions.
It's interesting to see how far off in the distance Splash has become in the mind's eye of film fans. Perhaps it's because, in the pantheon of Howard/Hanks films, Apollo 13 comes first and movies made before the 1990s fail to have anything but a strictly commercial resonance. And then there is the whole high concept notion. Abused and confused even in current cinematic expressions (including Howard's own awful Grinch and its bastard buddy The Cat in the Hat), there is just not a lot of longing love for other outrageous premise productions from the past. But Splash should be something of a standard, not an afterthought. It shows a new cinematic voice finding his fantasy/adventure/romantic chops. It showcases a soon to be award winning performer giving another of those natural, nuanced turns that would later be declared genuine genius. Darryl Hannah became a pin-up icon of geek imagination. And two forces to be reckoned with in moviemaking, Touchstone and the soon to be formed Imagine Pictures, were established. Splash should be seen as an important almost-first film for all involved, but it seems to get lumped in with other early '80s flights of fancy that just can't possibly hold up today. But those who think that way are wrong. Splash is still a magical movie, a nice family film with a passionate heart and a wonderful sly wit. It tickles your funny bones as it plays with your passions. And it never once undermines its pragmatism for the sake of a laugh or an effect. This genial romantic fantasy is one of the best fairy tale films ever made. And it's because characters, not ideas, came first.
Splash is found not guilty and is free to go. Touchstone and Disney also receive praise for finally giving this movie a little bit of the digital love it so rightly deserved the first time around.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Full Length Audio Commentary with Ron Howard, Brian Glazer, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel
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