Beneath every placid surface and between each crashing wave, the movies’ most magical aquatic adventures portend the possibility of mermaids. Half-human, half-fish creatures swam onto the big screen at the turn of the 20th century, appearing in silent works such as Georges Méliès‘ 1904 short film “The Mermaid” and John G. Adolfi’s 1918 feature “Queen of the Sea” among others. The mythical archetype was subsequently reeled in as the effervescent love interest template for numerous ’30s and ’40s rom-coms, with the concept perfected in Irving Pichel’s well-loved talky “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid,” starring Ann Blyth.
The siren songs characteristic of these mysterious ocean-dwellers even resulted in a string of MGM aqua musicals. (You might recall: Those were sent up by Scarlett Johansson in the Coen brothers’ spoofy 2016 flick “Hail, Caesar!”) Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” brought the mermaid musical to the animation-loving masses in 1989, winning Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Under the Sea” at the Oscars. Darryl Hannah appeared opposite Tom Hanks not much earlier in the 1984 Academy Award-nominated rom-com “Splash,” directed by Ron Howard. Howard’s film is among a league of contemporary mermaid romances, from Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum’s sparkling “Aquamarine” to M. Night Shyamalan’s insufferable “Lady in the Water.”
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A Best Picture winner from 2018, Guillermo del Toro’s masterful “The Shape of Water” captures the slippery second side to mermaids in the movies: As much as mermaids are portrayed as beautiful damsels, they can also be vicious monsters dragging heroes to the murky depths. Mermaids, or merfolk in general, have been the bad guys in numerous projects; most notably in Universal’s black-and-white classic “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Sure, one could argue that’s a sea monster movie as opposed to a mermaid movie. But with charming flicks like “Luca” asking the same question, while so clearly fitting the cheery “best mermaid movie” bill, that seems a semantic argument more than a thematic one.
Ranked by both entertainment value and category relevance, here are the 23 best movies about mermaids, sea monsters, and magical creatures walking on land. We’re updating this list in spring 2023, in honor of the release of Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid”: swimming into theaters May 26.
With editorial contributions by Kate Erbland.
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