How Disney’s Splash Paved the Way for Its Heroines


ONCE UPON A TIME, almost every offering from Disney kicked off with a  “once upon a time” kind of theme. After all, Disney was a fairly prudish, conservative corporation tasked with entertaining America’s children while being centered around family values. You know, like orphaning their main characters by killing off their moms. Just ask Ariel, Bambi, Mowgli, Cinderella, Tod from The Fox and the Hound, and countless others poor souls. Something happened in 1984 with the mermaid flick Splash, though, that changed how Disney went about doing business in the years and decades to come.

The Walt Disney Company is now the mother — and we’re pretty sure that no one’s going to be killing this one off anytime soon  — of entertainment corporations. Apart from the Disney brand itself, the company owns Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm (the studio behind the Star Wars franchise), the ABC Television Networks, as well as substantial chunks of the A+E Networks and Vice Media. This means it owns and oversees a ton of different and diverse content, oftentimes very controversial and aimed at primarily-adult audiences. But when Splash, a romantic comedy that launched the careers of Darryl Hannah and a young Tom Hanks, first came out, the fact that the film included swear words and — albeit brief — nudity was pretty revolutionary for Disney. It ended up garnering the film studio, and Touchstone Films (Disney’s non G-rated distribution label), a scandalous PG-rating. Quick, hide the kids!

The massive box office success of Splash really got the ball rolling for the “new” Disney, helping revitalize the company’s image, as well as allowing the studio to make and market films for larger audience that weren’t strictly comprised of stories revolving  children and their parents.

Even more interesting, perhaps, was how Darryl Hannah’s Madison (the character gave herself a human name after spotting a Madison Avenue street sign in Manhattan) became the real hero of the story. She was by no means a helpless damsel in distress. These days, with Disney characters and princesses like Merida (from the film Brave), Mulan and Frozen’s Elsa, there’s plenty of emancipated girl power to go around — but coming out of the decades prior to the 1980s, Disney generally clung to more traditional fairytale motifs, even well into the 2000s. Splash’s extremely capable Madison was a breath of fresh air — and of course, strategically placed hair (it’s still Disney, after all).

In the film, Madison saves Hank’s character Allen from drowning when he was a child, and then again when he’s an adult. After a series of adventures in New York, where Allen and Madison learn to trust and help one another — and of course spend a lot of time thwarting the nefarious plans of government bad guys — she saves him yet again by offering him a new life in her aquatic kingdom.

If you plan on re-watching (or watching for the first time) the film now, you’ll need to immerse yourself in the very strong 1980s vibe, which naturally differs from the sociopolitical climate of today. Even so, Hannah’s performance as Madison is a joy to behold; she expertly displays her character’s fierce raw heroism, intelligence, pleasure, and wonder when diving into new experiences of the human world — lots of those, incidentally, as she’s literally a fish out of water.

If, for some reason, you decide Spalsh isn’t your cup of tea (’80s culture isn’t for everyone), you’ll get another crack at the story fairly soon. Hollywood is planning a Splash remake — except this time the mermaid will be a merman, played by Channing Tatum. Not sure how that will work out — it could be good, but it could easily end up being horrible. Let’s just hope nothing too fishy happens to the legacy of the beloved original.