Sorry, girls - no romance. But there are overloads of shredding and fashion make-overs, dudettes. Universal has released another Mattel®-produced Barbie™ straight-to-DVD movie, Barbie™ in A Mermaid Tale, that features surfing, talking sparkly dolphins, evil mermaids, hippie grandfathers, and of course, valley girl mermaids who do nothing but shop, all wrapped up in a pseudo-ecological/New Age stew about evil magical powers ruining the oceans and whatnot (beats anything Al Gore's got to say...). Not much in the way of extras here.
Merliah (Kelly Sheridan) is the queen of the Malibu waves (the catchy little theme song tells us so). She can shred with the best of them, as she proves during the opening surfing competition, but then...something "mondo bizzaro" happens (as the meet announcer thumps). Her hair turns pink, causing her no small amount of embarrassment (Just pink hair? In California? Embarrassment?). Going home to her sweet beachside bungalow, she fills in surfer dude grandpappy "Break" (Gary Chalk) on what happened, and he drops the Big One on her: her hair is pink because she's a...mermaid. Her mind totally blown, Liah (as she's known) seeks out her BFFs, spacey Hadley (Maryke Hendrikse) and feisty Fallon (Nakia Burrise), but they don't need convincing when suddenly Zuma (Tabitha St. Germain), the pink, sparkly dolphin, pops up out of the water and starts talking. Knowing for a fact that she's not polluted, Liah accepts this frankly terrifying event as the final proof she's a mermaid, so off she goes with Zuma, who fills her in on what's up, down under the waves.
Apparently, Merliah's mother, Calissa (Nicole Oliver), gave up Liah to "Break" because a half-human mermaid wouldn't be "safe" in the land of Oceania. Calissa rules Oceania with a benevolent, beatific half-smile, spreading out her "Merillia," a powerful force that keeps the seas and fish and coral around Oceania healthy. However, Calissa soon loses the throne when she's hooked, netted, and locked up by her evil sister Eris (Kathleen Barr). Imprisoning Calissa in a dungeon of coral, Eris rules Oceania with an iron fin, demanding absolute attention from her subjects at all times - including boutique owners Kayla (Emma Pierson) and Xylie (Ciara Janson) - while the ocean and coral die because of her "bad" Merillia. So...it's up to Princess Liah to save Oceania by gathering three powerful, mystical tools to defeat Eris (available at your local toy dealer, I would imagine) - but what will she do when she has to choose between life underwater, and life in California (trust me, Liah - stay underwater. Less taxes.).
Barbie™ in A Mermaid Tale is pretty light fluff, so I'm not going to write a book on it. I've reviewed a few of these Barbie™ movies before, and I do have to say that Barbie™ in A Mermaid Tale is probably the best-looking one out of the bunch. The incredibly bright, colorful visuals pop with an almost 3D effect (it looks great on a big monitor), and the CGI has improved significantly over earlier Mattel® efforts. The surfing sequences, particularly the opening number, are energetically animated, with some surprisingly strong Dolby 5.1 separation effects that bring the waves right into your home theater. And more importantly, those scenes are kind a fun, too (my eight-year-old daughter wants to surf now...in the Midwest). The opening surfing contest kicks into gear with the snappy little theme song, Queen of the Waves, while Liah's friends start to dance along in the sand like some AIP Beach Party movie (there's also a brief but well done chase scene through the underwater coral as Liah and her seal Snouts evade some deadly jellyfish). All of that is fine, and keeps the movie going along at a good clip.
I don't recall any other Barbie™ straight-to-DVD movie that didn't feature some kind of romance for Barbie, but Barbie™ in A Mermaid Tale nixes that: no cute boys or mermen here. I suppose that development isn't particularly surprising, considering the drift of some of the previous films (such as Barbie™ and the Three Musketeers), where Barbie didn't need a man to make her whole or complete (what the hell am I writing here? It's a doll.). I would imagine there's a faction at Mattel® that listens to all that facile, wooly-headed, gender-biased nonsense aimed at traditional institutions like Barbie™ and decides, "Hey, for the next movie - no boys. Barbie™ - and all those little girls out there - don't need 'em!" Whatever. I can tell you this; as the father of three girls (and three boys), the only ones not daydreaming innocent fantasies of romance and eternal love are the boys. Those fantasy elements of romance are essential to the Barbie™ mythology, even as, right from her inception, she rightfully pursued independence through education and careers. So, if Ken™ or some such surrogate was left out on purpose here to make a statement, it's not going to work. Case in point: there may not be any boy in Barbie™ in A Mermaid Tale, but when I recently saw my daughter playing with her Merliah mermaid Barbie™, Ken was right there alongside her (yes, I did what Mattel® planned all along...I bought her the doll. Cripes).
As for Barbie™ in A Mermaid Tale's storyline, it's probably best left to dopey little kids who don't know any better: parents might find it a slog. Annoyances abound here. If I hear one more valley girl accent in one of these kids movies, I'm going to put my head through a wall. And I can do without all the references to shopping and make-overs ("Work it, girl! You are fierce!" they cry when Liah gets a tail - jeeee-suz, shut up). But other elements are unintentionally funny, such as the little psychic "Destinies" who suddenly blank out and go into a wide-eyes trance, foretelling the future (as if anyone can tell the difference between their two states of consciousness). So approached with the right attitude - I'm doing this for my kid, so smile and nod and agree it's "awesome" - Barbie™ in A Mermaid Tale manages to stay afloat.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.