A Fantasy Worth Following: Ron Howard's Splash (1984)
In the early 1980s, Ron Howard was still in the midst of a professional pivot from actor to director. Having just come off a success with the R-rated sex comedy Night Shift, Howard was defining himself as a director who was growing adept at reading the room rather that trying to build a brand. So, it makes sense that his follow-up, his second collaboration with producer Brian Grazer, would exhibit a completely different tone, and in turn establish Ron Howard as an A-list director.
1984’s Splash is the first Disney film under the Touchtone Pictures banner, mainly due to the brief nudity that warranted a PG-rating (which would absolutely be a PG-13 film in our current climate, or the nudity would probably be cut out of the film). For such a chaste romance that oozes pathos, decency, and old-school romance, it’s interesting that the marketing of the film pushed the sexiness any chance it could, making puns like, “She has a great pair of fins” and even references in the tagline that the mermaid shows up naked. It’s as if Disney still wanted to coast off the goodwill of Night Shift, and that makes sense, Disney hadn’t really had a hit in over 10 years, going back to the 1968’s The Love Bug; Splash needed to convince audiences that a Touchstone film wasn’t a squeaky clean Disney film – instead, it was sexy and ambitious.
Watching the film now, decades away from the marketing campaign, Splash holds up as a classic romance with a clever use of the ‘fish out of water’ trope (pun intended.) Howard nails the sequence in which an 8-year-old Allen sees something magical in the water and jumps in after it, eventually meeting the mermaid, making a connection that will haunt him for the next 20 years. What I love about this opening is that the film telegraphs that this is a comedic love story that happens to be a fantasy – the heart comes first and Howard’s direction makes that abundantly clear. I did find the introduction to John Candy’s Freddie character to be a little over-the-top; having him look up a girl’s skirt sets him up as a perv/womanizer, sure, but we don’t need multiple shots of this. And Howard’s choice to shoot this sequence in sepia tones is a bold one, because the vivid colors of the underwater shots aren’t going to be a crutch for awe and beauty. Instead, there’s a longing for the past that feels like a gut punch when Allen is rescued back onto the boat and the young mermaid watches the boat sail away. It’s heartbreaking and sets up the story perfectly.
Once Tom Hanks and John Candy show up as the adult versions of Allen and Freddie, the film takes on the tone of a light-hearted screwball comedy. Are the gender politics problematic? Sure. John Candy literally walks around reading a copy of Penthouse in public, like a sociopath. But Tom Hanks does such great work here, establishing the idea that this is a man that has been plagued by his interaction with the mermaid for twenty years.
Allen has a very clear goal: ''to meet a woman, fall in love, get married, have a kid, and see him play a tooth in the school play.'' Howard’s direction shines when he’s exploring the idea of obsession – is love a fantasy worth following? As the second act plays out and Daryl Hannah’s mermaid character, eventually named Madison, engages with her new world of New York City, it’s clear that Howard knows how to wring out the comedy (crunching into the shell of the lobster, destroying a display of televisions with her high-pitched wail, etc…) These moments defined its blockbuster status; Howard most definitely delivered the goods on a high-concept premise.
Yet, through it all, what makes Splash an enduring film after all these years is not necessarily a hot take, but still deserves to be mentioned: Tom Hanks owns this movie like only a movie star can. And the rest of the cast is aces, but Hanks carries this film like a classic movie star and Howard’s direction is well aware of this. Without his vulnerable likability, the romance would feel like a gimmick – yet Hanks sells the almost ridiculous concept of falling for a mermaid because he treats the situation as if the stakes mean the world to him. Ron Howard keys in on this and delivers an ending that is emotionally satisfying because he knows the magic of this film isn’t about a nude creature covered in scales, it’s about the sacrifices we make for love.
Splash is a defining film for Ron Howard because it proved that he was unquestionably a populist director, in the same class as Robert Zemeckis. And like Zemeckis, Howard’s career would tackle all sorts of genres and tones, eventually settling on adult dramas marketed as prestige event films. Ron Howard didn’t just direct a solid comedy. Splash is a solid romantic fantasy comedy with an extremely sentimental heart - which is quite the achievement.