Disney’s live action movie “The Little Mermaid” hits theaters on May 26, 2023. Long anticipated though not without pre-release controversy, the film promises to immerse moviegoers in a beautifully realized undersea realm. It will be complete with the characters, thrills, and whimsy of Disney’s iconic 1989 animated musical and a visual delight. The charming addition will be singer Halle Bailey as the mermaid Ariel. But this live action mermaid movie is not the first of its kind.
Let’s dive in and take a look at a few outstanding treasures of the past.
From Fairytale to Film: Ariel on the Silver Screen
Mermaids have always fascinated us. These creatures with the upper body of a woman and the tail of a fish have inspired stories worldwide, from ancient mythology and folklore to modern fairy tales and, of course, movies. They have been depicted as everything from innocent and alluring to monstrous and menacing.
One of the earliest movie portrayals of a mermaid was in the 1911 one-reel film “The Mermaid.” Also known as “Siren of the Sea,” this short, silent fantasy film was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale and starred Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. As the mermaid, she falls in love with a human prince and makes a deal with a sea witch to give up her tail for legs in order to be with him. The underwater scenes were impressive for the time and set the stage for later, more elaborate and colorful productions.
Another silent film of note, also starring Annette Kellerman, came along in 1918: “Queen of the Sea.” Like Andersen’s mermaid Ariel, the Queen of the Sea desires to be human and nobly sets out to fulfill a prophesy: She will rescue four human beings and, as a reward, be granted human form and be given an immortal soul. Sadly, the film is presumed lost.
Wit and Innocence
The year 1948 spawned a notable fantasy laced with romance and comedy: “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid.” This charming tale features William Powell and Ann Blyth in the title roles. When a middle-aged man on vacation in the Caribbean encounters and falls in love with a mermaid, the question becomes: Was she real or imagined?
A second film in ’48 also showcased a mermaid: In “Miranda,” starring Glynis Johns, a bewitching sea maiden charms a young married physician into taking her to see London. However, unlike mermaids who exchange their tails for legs when on land, Miranda does not, and keeping this fact concealed provides a good deal of fun. Both fantasy films, with their wit and nostalgic innocence, can still be enjoyed today.
Making a Splash
Another classic mermaid movie is “Splash” from 1984, starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah. In this romantic comedy, a young man falls in love with an enigmatic young woman, not knowing she is the mermaid who saved him from drowning at sea when he was a boy. “Splash” was a box office hit and helped cement mermaids as a beloved and enduring movie trope.
Of course, to date the most iconic movie to bring the tale by Andersen to the silver screen is not live action at all. It is Disney’s 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid.” It follows the story of Ariel as she falls in love with her human prince and dreams of living on land. Its vivid animation is enlivened with catchy songs and memorable characters, and has launched a franchise of sequels, TV shows, and even a Broadway musical.
That said, enjoy Disney’s 2023 live action version of Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale. I hope you enjoyed this quick walk through film history and mermaids. For a comprehensive list of mermaid appearances in literature and film, check out “Mermaids in popular culture” on Wikipedia. For a glimpse of mermaids and a visual journey through their world, visit Mermaid Spirit and Mermaid Realms on Pinterest.
PS: Mermaids are not always depicted as playful, lovely, and benign in myths and movies. They can be quite deadly. But that’s a topic for another blog.