Tuesday 26 September 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? The Little Mermaid (1976)

What's it all about?
You probably know, or think you do. This is a relatively close adaptation of the original Hans Christian Anderson fairytale of The Little Mermaid.

Why haven't you seen it?
I'm not sure whether I should credit the Disney film with being a help or hindrance in this case. On the one hand its popularity keeps the story in the consciousness, on the other, it has a tendency to eclipse other versions. I only heard of this film having become interested in Czech surrealism after seeing Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders, and let's just say that The Little Mermaid isn't a film you're very likely to stumble upon

Why should you see it?
As I alluded to above, Disney has, thanks to its position in popular culture, a way of taking ownership of the fairytales it adapts, and that certainly seems to be the case with The Little Mermaid. On the one hand, it's fair enough to lighten up what is a dark and sad tale for a young audience, on the other it's good to have a version that gets closer to the original intent of the story.

This isn't to say that Karel Kachyna's take on the tale is relentlessly grim, indeed it can be quite enchanting and beautiful. The film's first half hour takes place almost entirely under the sea, as the King of all the seas prepares for a birthday celebration marking one year before his daughter (Miroslava Safránková) is married and her husband will inherit the throne. The film doesn't exactly look as though it was hugely expensive, but whatever the budget the design is beautiful and intelligent. The Mer people wear flowing robes, have blue make up on the top halves of their faces and wear their hair up, with ocean debris sticking out in all directions.

Sets are adorned with sunken treasures from the human world, some the Mer people seem to understand (the King knows what swords are), but others are more obscure (“It's full of yellow circles” is the Little Mermaid's reaction to a chest of gold coins). Kachyna makes great use of these design elements as well as of very slight slow motion, which gives some key moments in the underwater kingdom a quality of movement that matches the design's creation of an otherworldly space.

It is only in the film's last half hour that the Little Mermaid (who is never given a name) trades her voice for a chance to go to the human world and have a Prince she rescued from drowning fall in love with her. The scene of the spellcasting is well done, with the witch laying out in detail the pain that the Mermaid must endure for this chance. Without playing up to it, it becomes a creepy moment. On land the film is rather more ordinary than it is underwater. The design isn't as inventive and while the acting is solid enough only  Safránková stands out. The ending does deliver on its tragic intent though and the story is well told throughout, it's just that the film marks itself out much more in its first hour.

The Little Mermaid isn't the masterpiece that Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders (whose star, Jaroslava Schallerova, has a small part here) or Jan Svankmajer's Alice are, nor even as distinguished as Three Wishes For Cinderella and lacks their surreal edge. That said, it tells its story faithfully and, through its design, transports us to an underwater kingdom that feels truly like something out of a fairytale. It's well worth seeking out if you've seen the films mentioned above and are curious.

How can you see it?
This is strange. While researching this section I couldn't find a DVD release of this film, nor is it available on Amazon or Netflix, to my knowledge (if you look on a certain well known video site though, you'll find it easily enough). What I did stumble on is a RUSSIAN telling of The Little Mermaid, also from 1976, on Amazon's Prime streaming service. I've never seen it, but will be correcting that soon.

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