Another summer, another Disney release. And this time it’s a reimagining of the movie that kicked off the Disney Renaissance, The Little Mermaid.
But the ensuing mermaid craze obviously didn’t come out of a vacuum; legends have been circulating for centuries about merpeople in one form or another, whether as sexually enchanting sirens luring sailors to their deaths or benevolent beings so fascinated by humans they become the ideal lovers. They’re much like vampires in the way that they provide endless potential to explore the fine line between the human and the alien, and they can even take it further by acting as metaphors for the vast, still unexplored regions of the ocean and nature itself.
With that in mind, here is a list of 10 mermaid movies that should go down swimmingly.
10. The Little Mermaid (2023)
Genre: Fantasy family adventureRun time: 2h 15mDirector: Rob MarshallCast: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina
Give Disney some credit; it knows how to keep this story enchanting. It can’t cover for the fact that the new Little Mermaid is far too derivative of an iconic story that’s already been told, but Halle Bailey is a wonder as Ariel, whose fascination with humans leads her to give up her voice so she can gain legs and be with her prince.
The remake also adds some new twists by changing up the setting, with her love interest Prince Eric’s (played by Jonah Hauer-King in full dreamboat mode) kingdom becoming a tropical island paradise rather than a generic European locale, and Ariel getting to show off her undersea knowledge. There’s also the supporting cast, with Javier Bardem as Triton, Awkwafina as the seagull Scuttle, Daveed Diggs as the crab Sebastian, Melissa McCarthy introducing a whole new generation to the tentacled villain Ursula, and an absolutely scene-stealing Jessica Alexander vamping it up as her human guise Vanessa.
The Little Mermaid is now playing in theaters.
Genre: Fantasy family comedyRun time: 1h 50mDirector: Elizabeth Allen RosenbaumCast: JoJo, Emma Roberts, Sara Paxton
Thirsty teen girls! The beach! Best friend oaths! Calling your crush and hanging up! iPod references! There’s a reason this 2006 teen movie has become a cult classic that has continued to build a following with Gen Z.
Thirteen-year-old besties Hailey (JoJo) and Claire (Emma Roberts) are spending their final summer together on the hormonal smorgasbord that is the beach scene in their small Florida town before Hailey is forced to depart for Australia. They happen upon the titular teenage mermaid Aquamarine (Sara Paxton) by chance, quickly learning she’s fled her father’s underwater kingdom, and now has three days to prove love exists in order to avoid the marriage he’s arranged for her. Once Aquamarine falls for the town heartthrob, handsome lifeguard Raymond (Jake McDorman), the game is on.
The female gaze is strong with this one, as director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum lingers over a shirtless Raymond and unabashedly embraces girl culture in a time that was notoriously disdainful of teen girls, especially if they tended to show desire. But Aquamarine has a surprisingly empowering message, as it encourages its characters to be uniquely themselves and emphasizes the powerful bond between the trio over traditional romantic love.
8. Mad About Men
Genre: Fantasy comedyRun time: 1h 30mDirector: Ralph ThomasCast: Glynis Johns, Margaret Rutherford, Donald Sinden
Long before Glynis Johns delighted as the suffragette matriarch in Mary Poppins, she became beloved as the mischievous mermaid Miranda. Reprising her role from the eponymous 1948 film (scroll down further), she returns to land, this time in Cornwall, to swap places with her distant, buttoned-up cousin Caroline (also played by Johns) for a few weeks.
Miranda is up to many of the same tricks, hiding her tail by using a wheelchair, shamelessly flirting with the various men she encounters, and enlisting the enthusiastic help of eccentric Nurse Carey (a pre-Jane Marple Margaret Rutherford) for the comedic hijinks. This time her schemes have more of a purpose: to upgrade her cousin’s life by quickly ridding Caroline of her stuffy fiance and catching the eye of the handsome wealthy bachelor Jeff (Donald Sinden). And this time, Miranda may even get to sing a musical number.
Mad About Men can be found on YouTube.
7. The Mermaid
Genre: Fantasy comedyRun time: 1h 34mDirector: Stephen ChowCast: Chao Deng, Yun Lin, Kitty Zhang
Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle director Stephen Chow gives us a rom-com that’s as offbeat as we’d expect, and in a fashion that straddles genres. At once a fluffy rom-com, environmental rallying cry, and action fantasy, The Mermaid was a smash hit in China, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time in the country.
After playboy billionaire Liu Xuan (Chao Deng) acquires a coastal wildlife reserve known as the Green Gulf and utilizes solar technology to drive away the marine life in order to reclaim the land for business purposes, he unknowingly causes widespread sickness and death among the local merpeople population. Fed up with the excess of humans, they send the young mermaid Shan (Yun Lin) to seduce Liu Xuan, then assassinate him. Complications arise, of course, with the two falling for each other and finding themselves in the crosshairs of even more dangerous forces.
Shan has some truly ingenious methods to pass for a human on land, none of which involve wheelchairs, and there are some sidesplitting sequences where she first attempts to kill Liu Xuan only to end up with something far weirder than egg on her face. A laugh riot that’s also a plea for the rich to consider what they’ll be left with if their rampant consumerism is left unchecked, The Mermaid is above all an ode to love and how it can triumph over all kinds of odds.
6. Blue My Mind
Genre: Fantasy horrorRun time: 1h 37mDirector: Lisa BrühlmannCast: Luna Wedler, Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen, Regula Grauwiller
Puberty arrives with a roar in the Swiss film Blue My Mind, as the teenage Mia (Luna Wedler) discovers acne is the least of her problems shortly after getting her first period. Suddenly, fitting in with the cool kids takes short shrift to her cravings for saltwater and fish, her toes growing together, her belly button disappearing, and strange bruising on her legs that eventually transforms them into a tail.
More than a metaphor for adolescence, the movie also touches on the pressures modern teen girls face, with Mia making use of partying, drugs, sex, and even cutting to cope with her bodily changes. In the absence of any answers from her parents, her saving grace becomes Gianna (Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen), who becomes her friend, crush, and staunch ally. Good thing, because when a girl grows a tail, she’s gonna need all the found family she can get.
5. A Mermaid in Paris
Genre: Fantasy romantic comedyRun time: 1h 42mDirector: Mathias MalzieuCast: Nicolas Duvauchelle, Marilyn Lima
Any list of mermaid films is bound to have at least one for all the hopeless romantics out there, and the French movie A Mermaid in Paris more than fits the bill, as two leads who have closed their hearts off to love find themselves opening up to each other.
Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is mourning the loss of his romantic relationship and his family business closing. Lula (Marilyn Lima) calls herself the last mermaid, and since her mother was killed by humans, she’s spent many a night using her voice to lure men to their deaths. When Gaspard takes Lula back to his apartment after he discovers her unconscious and injured, she’s shocked to discover he’s immune to her song, at least at first. But as the two begin to fall for each other, it begins to take a bodily toll on Gaspard, with the two also having to contend with a vengeful hunter whose fiance fell victim to Lula.
But the heart of the film lies in its emphasis on the history of artistic resistance to fascism, and the redemptive power of not only love but imagination in the face of an isolating modern world. And apparently Parisians rival New Yorkers in their ability to completely disregard a mermaid tail when they see it.
Genre: Fantasy romantic comedyRun time: 1h 20mDirector: Ken AnnakinCast: Glynis Johns, Griffith Jones
Glynis Johns originated the role of the titular Miranda in this 1948 comedic charmer where the mermaid captures and captivates. Married physician Dr. Paul Martin (Griffith Jones) finds himself imprisoned by Miranda on a solo fishing trip, but she agrees to release him if he takes her on a tour of London. Disguising her mermaid tail by passing as a wheelchair user and abetted by Nurse Carey, she quickly and thoughtlessly charms the men she meets, inspiring broken engagements and beautiful paintings alike.
Much of the comedy results from the antics of those louses who go back to their spouses, with Nurse Carey assuring one of the younger women that wanting to kill your husband is a perfectly normal part of marriage. Since it’s all in good farce, the madcap entanglements end happily, and Miranda is all the better for refusing to learn a thing or be humbled in general.
Miranda can be found on YouTube.
3. The Lure
Genre: Fantasy horrorRun time: 1h 32mDirector: Agnieszka SmoczynskaCast: Michalina Olszanska, Marta Mazurek
The mermaid is both a lover and a monster in this Polish film, which comfortably embraces musical, horror, and fantasy genres in equal measure. When mermaid sisters Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) come to land to perform in a Warsaw nightclub in the ‘80s, the result is at once a modern spin on the beauty and body horrors of womanhood, the immigrant experience, and a dark fairy tale that taps into the tragic heart of the Hans Christian Andersen source material.
While Golden mostly views humans as a source of food and fun, Silver is the tragic romantic who falls in love with a human, surgically replacing her tail with legs and losing her voice as a result. A deeply feminist gothic tale that also finds grim humor in objectification, director Agnieszka Smoczynska makes having — and doing — it all look easy… on-screen, at least.
Genre: Fantasy romantic comedyRun time: 1h 51mDirector: Ron HowardCast: Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, John Candy
There’s a reason this is the classic fish-out-of-water story. It’s a rare actor who can match national treasure Tom Hanks for charm, but Daryl Hannah makes it look effortless, taking to the role so well she made the safety team eat her bubbles as she outswam them.
As Hanks’ workaholic, closed-off Allen and Hannah’s free-spirited mermaid, who takes the name Madison, tour ’80s-era New York City, their ensuing journey is one of director Ron Howard’s sweetest comedic love stories. Nevermind that Hannah’s mermaid can only be human on land for a mere seven days; Allen and Madison’s connection feels written in the stars and the waves. Plus, there’s supporting players John Candy and Eugene Levy, who give their all.
1. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Genre: Fantasy family adventureRun time: 1h 23mDirectors: John Musker, Ron ClementsCast: Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright, Pat Carroll
Ron Howard gave us a wonderful example of the genre, but once Disney released The Little Mermaid in 1989 and kicked off its renaissance, it gave us what has become the most iconic and memorable mermaid film of all time. The response was (and is) so enthusiastic that it’s difficult to recall that not everyone was a fan, with critic Pauline Kael calling it “a bland reworking of old Disney fairy tales,” questioning whether the House of Mouse was “trying to put kids into some sort of moral-aesthetic safe house.”
Nevertheless, it’s ironic that this somewhat problematic, admittedly sanitized fairy tale may be the most in touch with the story’s queer roots, with some even likening it to a trans allegory. For this on-screen introduction to the Andersen fairy tale of a mermaid giving up her voice for her prince, there was some heavy queer involvement behind the scenes in Princess Ariel (Jodi Benson) and Prince Eric’s (Christopher Daniel Barnes) love story. The movie’s villain, Ursula, was famously inspired by drag queen Divine, and there’s also the fact that Ariel must hide her interests in a kind of closet from her intolerant father, Triton (Kenneth Mars).
Radical is likely the last thing that comes to mind for Disney’s interpretation of the classic fairy tale, but all the focus on how Ariel gives up her voice for a man doesn’t change that Eric was the mere catalyst for Ariel’s resolve to take the first step to change her body to match who she knows she is on the inside. And of course, by the end, Ariel gets to have her kelp and eat it too.