It's been really interesting watching the progress of the CGI Barbie film series, that was launched in 2001 with Barbie in The Nutcracker (that I remember seeing debut on TV). It's a successful franchise, that's for sure, with Barbie (or a Barbie avatar) playing a starring role in a number of adaptations of both familiar stories as well as completely original stories.
Barbie in A Mermaid Tale (2010) is one of those original Barbie stories, and takes place in a modern, contemporary setting. Most of the films take place in historical, fantasy or European history-influenced fairytale settings. This means that A Mermaid Tale's Barbie gets to be more modern herself, occasionally talking in slang and being way more sassy, which startled me a little because I'd gotten too used to the kinder, softer Barbie of the fairytale films. That said I think this is great, and I found the movie charming, sweet and funny. There's also something wonderful in how the main character is a surfer, as girl surfers aren't as common in fiction as they should be, and the thrill-seeking part of the character is treated as something normal and just another aspect of her personality.
In this film, Barbie is Merliah, a teenaged girl who loves riding the waves. She was raised by her grandfather, Break (also an avid surfer), and has all her life believed that her parents died in an accident in her youth. During a surf tournament, Merliah (1) realizes her hair has suddenly streaked pink for no reason, (2) discovers that she can suddenly breathe underwater, and (3) is approached by a talking dolphin. This is all too much for the young lady, but that's only the start of it -- it turns out that Merliah is half-mermaid, and the physical changes are part of her coming of age.
Merliah also learns that her mother is Queen Calissa, ruler of the underwater kingdom of Oceana. The dolphin, Zuma, wants Merliah to return to Oceana and overthrow its current ruler, the cruel Queen Eris (and Calissa's sister). At first Merliah wants none of this -- she wants to be a normal girl and have everything go back to the way it was. But she agrees to go with Zuma to find Calissa, if only in the hopes that her mother can turn everything back to normal.
Of course, over the film Merliah gets to know Oceana and some of its inhabitants, makes good friends, and has her own personal growth in accepting her mermaid heritage alongside her human heritage.
Merliah has human legs for most of the movie, though when she arrives at Oceana she's given a tail costume in order to stay hidden. I really liked the design of the merfolk tails and clothing in this, especially how for most of them they're not uniform in colour and have various patterns. (The patterns on Merliah's fake tail in particular is a fav of mine.) That said Barbie designs in general please the part of me that really likes Shiny Things, and it's amazing how the CGI quality of the Barbie films has evolved so much in just a handful of years.
The depiction of merfolk of this movie is another thing that took me by surprise, as they are just as modern as the land-living folk, with their own fashion culture and thriving shopping district (which made me wonder briefly if this means they had an industrial revolution, but then I figured - eh, they have MAGIC).
Apparently I enjoyed the first film more than I thought, because I was stoked when I found out it had a sequel, and was excited to see more of Merliah's human-mermaid shenanigans. Barbie in a Mermaid Tale 2 was released in 2012, two years after the original, though in-universe it's a year that has passed for Merliah.
On land, Merliah is preparing for a surfing competition and trying to beat her rival, Kylie. This is really important for Merliah, who loves surfing and feels like she needs to prove a point. In the ocean, Queen Calissa is preparing for the Changing of the Tides, a super important ceremony held every twenty years where a member of the royal family has to perform. As luck has it, the Changing of the Tides ceremony and the surfing finals are on the same day, so mother and daughter are not too pleased that the other refuses to accommodate them.
Meanwhile, Calissa's sister, Eris, is plotting to escape her prison and perform the ritual herself. She accomplishes her jailbreak by having a fish minion, Alastair, trick Kylie into doing their dirty work for them, preying on Kylie's insecurities and competitiveness with Merliah. (Would like to add I dig Kylie's arc in this, especially since the Barbie films tend to be quite black-and-white when it comes to villainy, and having Kylie break that a little was a nice touch.)
In this film mother and daughter face their fears and learn more about each other (important, so they were only reunited quite recently), and in that course become closer. Merliah learns more about what it means to be a princess and a mermaid, and Calissa understands better that Merliah's regular girl human side is just as important to her identity.
We don't see much of Oceana in this film, sadly, as most of the underwater action is in Aquellia, the ancient city where the Changing of the Tides takes place. I kind of missed that place, though it was nice to see some of the other merfolk from other places.
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