November 20, 2014

The Little Mermaid (1976; Soviet Union)

Directed by Vladimir Bychkov. Starring Viktoriya Novikova ("Little Mermaid"), Valentin Nikulin ("Sulpitius"), Galina Artyomova ("Princess"), and Yuri Senkevich ("Prince"). Rated G.

Source: Streaming on The Movie And Music Network
Running time: 01:17:51
Country: Soviet Union, Bulgaria

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This adaptation of THE LITTLE MERMAID (not to be confused with Czechoslovakia's adaptation from the same year) is much different from the animated Disney version that most people have seen. The obvious difference is that its live-action, but it's also darker - well, about as dark as it can get while still being a "family" movie anyway.

THE LITTLE MERMAID (or RUSALOCHKA) takes place in the 13th century when mermaids were believed to have existed and explorers sailed the seas on a regular basis. According to legend, mermaids are said to have carried diseases, caused shipwrecks, and preyed on the vulnerability of the lonely men on the ships. In this particular story, they're referred to as "children of the devil" - their heavenly appearances contrasted by a supposedly supernatural origin. All of that said, the film obviously revolves around one particular mermaid, just like the original 17th century fairy tale and every adaptation of it. The young mermaid rescues a handsome Prince after a shipwreck and falls in love with him, essentially going on to stalk him, waiting in the waters surrounding the castle where he's nursed back to health and later competes with another man for the love of a Princess.

The mermaid befriends a peasant, who in turn seeks out the help of a witch who can make the mermaid's dream of being with the Prince a reality. The witch uses a spell to turn the mermaid's fish tail into a pair of legs in exchange for her beautiful head of hair. And with such a bargain comes conditions - if she's rejected by the Prince, she'll die, but her life will could be saved if someone else willfully dies in her place. She then goes on to blend in with the humans and get close to the Prince like she planned, but not without complications of course.

This film adaptation skips over or changes some of what was established in Hans Christian Andersen's original fairy tale. For example, we see the mermaid's family but they're never acknowledged in the story and are reduced to brief appearances. Also, there's the compromising of the mermaid's hair as opposed to her voice. Strangely, the witch hints at wanting to take her voice but changes her mind. But, for the most part, it stays loyal to the source material.

The story does get a tad convoluted in the second half as the focus frequently diverts away from the mermaid towards the Princess and the men who are courting her, but it doesn't do much to affect the overall pacing considering how short this movie is. The young actress who plays the mermaid is adorable but doesn't show a lot of range. More often than not, she has the same pouting facial expression. But then again, that could have been the direction she was given as an actress, so I can't fault her for that.

As expected, with the knowledge that this is a Fantasy film from Eastern Europe, THE LITTLE MERMAID is a gorgeous and, at times, surreal movie with some amazing visuals - specifically during the opening scenes, which feature underwater shots of the mermaids swimming amongst jellyfish while an older merman (presumably their father) watches on. And some of the scenes involving the witch would be right at home in a Gothic horror movie. Most of the stunning visuals come early in the movie, but the film maintains an ethereal vibe throughout thanks to a sweeping and haunting score that sounds like something Bruno Nicolai or Ennio Morricone would have composed for a 70s Giallo. Overall, this is a neat little gem that whets my appetite for even more Fantasy films and dark fairy-tales from that part of the world. I personally love watching Russian and especially Czech films from back in the day because of the unique cinematic voices of those regions. If you feel the same, you should definitely give this a look. And, if not, I think this is something most fans of cinema and storytelling can appreciate anyway.

Score: 7.5

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