Review: Splash (Howard, 1984)

Companion review for Top 10 Tom Hanks Films 1984 – 1989

This labour of love for producer Brian Grazer, who wrote the story for Splash, is quite clearly shown in the very male fantasy of the undeniably beautiful woman coming out of nowhere and telling you she’s in love with you. Actually, she comes out of nowhere and has sex with you in a car, a lift, the bedroom and on top of the fridge – is that the male fantasy or is there love in there somewhere? Regardless, it seems quite daring of Disney to take on such a picture – the very company whose production lot busied itself with nothing other than flies at the time, their live-action output continually producing myopic trash for kids such as The Spaceman and King Arthur, The Biscuit Eater, Gus and The Million Dollar Duck. This was a company who needed a hit, but it also needed to infiltrate an adult market that it hadn’t been able to entice for several years.

Splash was certainly the movie to do so, but it also proved to be a landmark film in many respects since it gave the world Tom Hanks, as well as the now well-established production outlet Touchstone Pictures (which was to be Disney’s new, more mature facet of their production house), and it put Ron Howard on the map as a viable director who clearly had talent. Yet, the film was still a daring move for Disney – a PG movie for starters, and Daryl Hannah was to be topless in the film, but they allowed Howard and Grazer to make the film they wanted to make, seemingly seeing what the film was really about at its core. Because Splash’s most endearing quality is in its celebration of fantasy and believing in a dream, that in those things lies an innocence, a sense of adventure, and ultimately fulfilment – the very things Disney knew all about in its heyday, subtly preaching such virtues in a spoon full of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

The film sees Allen Bauer (Tom Hanks) contemplating his life when he wakes up on a beach one morning after drunkenly taking a cab to the coast as a consequence of another lovelorn conversation with his philandering brother Freddie (John Candy). He seemingly can’t balance his love life with his commitments at work but after a freak boating accident he is saved by a beautiful woman (Daryl Hannah) who disappears into the sea. Eventually, he meets her again and while she can’t speak English, she soon learns by watching television in a shopping mall. Of course, unbeknownst to Allen, this girl who he christens Madison, is a mermaid and she only has a few days to spend with him until she has to return to the sea. However, scheming scientist Walter Kornbluth (Eugene Levy) knows that a mermaid has come to New York city, and he’ll stop at nothing to uncover her.

Splash is so great because of its innocent escapism that shines through its cynical eighties surroundings and the commercial materialism that clouds everyday life. In Madison we see that innocence played out, and director Howard rightly pursues her character’s lack of worldly bias and the primitive ideals she holds dear. Hanks’ Allen Bauer is a product of his environment, a go-getter whose work and pursuit of prosperity has seemingly hindered his love-life, but he holds onto his childhood dream which is unlocked by Madison’s simple and un-doctored outlook. There’s an especially good scene when Madison learns to speak English by watching television and then proceeds to speak to Allen in advert tag lines and gimmicky selling points, a sort of acknowledgment that dreams and personal identification are suppressed by a powerful media influence. She is immune to this because her convictions are so basic, but Allen has to overcome his own prejudices to believe in the innocence of his dream.

The film is also helped by some very well timed comedy and a delightful cast. John Candy as Tom Hanks’ womanising brother is his usual loud, bubbly self, and Eugene Levy as the villainous mad scientist Kornbluth whose desperate attempts to prove his theory that Madison is a mermaid, make for some of the film’s more memorable slapstick moments. However, it’s the great chemistry between Hanks and Hannah that carry the film, director Howard depicting them with a calm, fairytale vitality and both delivering performances that superbly bring out the essence of their characters – Madison’s minimalist, primal fantasy; Allen’s convoluted world and ever-distant dream. Their relationship is so engaging because they so beautifully encapsulate their characters, and Howard only adds to this with fairytale styling that produces a wonderful optimism without any hint of manipulative saccharine.

Above all, Splash is a wonderfully funny and enjoyable romance that subtly plays on the fish-out-of-water tale to make little stabs at middle eighties Americana, whilst swimming in the innocence of lost dreams. It might be an offshoot of Disney but this is Disney-logic through and through, and it isn’t a bad thing. Ron Howard directs with youthful vigour providing the film with fairytale optimism, and grounds the fantasy in the real life contrivances that make dreams an improbable goal. There’s a shade of the formulaic, and a plot hole or two, but the film is inventive enough to sustain itself, and it strikes a perfect balance between heartfelt romance and outright comedy. It’s superbly written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and their passion, along with Howard, is evident in what is a joyful rendition of the old, old story – when a boy met a girl.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. ruth Reply

    I haven’t seen this movie for ages, but I might rewatch it again soon. I heard Tom Hanks impersonating Ron Howard (during the set of this movie) a few times on Talk Shows, he was such a hoot.

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