Splash is probably the most famous mainstream mermaid movie there is. The film was released in 1984 and became the runaway romantic comedy of the year, pushing stars Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah into the spotlight. How many years on, it still has only Ariel (The Little Mermaid coming out a mere 5 years after this film) as a rival in terms of mermaid pop culture consciousness.
Not unlike Hans Christian Andersen's mermaid, a mermaid saves her young man's life and follows him to land, but this one's a romantic comedy with a culture clash angle and different stakes. The mermaid, named Madison by her love interest, can only stay on land for a fixed period, and in the end must make a choice that will determine her destiny. The performancs of Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks, plus the superb directing by Ron Howard, elevated what could have been a forgettable little fantasy-romance film into a classic.
Splash's impact is such that so much mermaid media that came after it was influenced it, whether in direct borrowing or by subverting it. Certainly the trend of depicting mermaids who get legs when dry and must avoid water was popularized by this film, so much so that after 1984, it became more notable when there were mermaid media where the mermaid didn't gain legs.
The surprising thing is, Madison only spends a small portion of the film with a tail, and there are no extended and indulgent swimming sequences as can be seen in later media. Despite this, and despite the fact that mermaid tail technology and underwater filming has improved a lot since the 1980s, Splash still remains one of the most crisp and compelling depictions of live-action mermaids. Part of this is the excellent work of the director and cinematographer, leading to the underwater scenes being for the most part so well-lit that we can see Madison clearly, instead of her being obscured. Madison's colouring is another key element, i.e. her being blonde and her tail orange makes her pop against the blue background, and the highlights of her hair make her movement far more dynamic.
Of course, there's Daryl Hannah herself, who made depicting a mermaid look so easy that it would only be later, after many other actresses tried to do the same with varying degrees of success, that it would be clear how much skill it took to use that tail and act underwater. According to an interview with Daryl in the 20th Anniversary DVD, she'd been swimming like a "mermaid" (that is, with her legs tied together) ever since she was a kid, so when she was given the role of Madison, it was a dream come true, and she even swam better than the stunt women who were supposed to double for her.
As a side note, Splash was the first film to be released under the Touchstone Pictures label, which was owned Disney, who would also release the animated The Little Mermaid. Additionally, Ariel was originally supposed to have blonde hair, but because of Splash, they had to consider other hues for her lovely locks, and eventually settled on red.
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