Beneath every placid surface and amidst every crashing wave, the movies’ most magical aquatic adventures portend the possibility of mermaids. Half-human, half-fish creatures swam onto the big screen in the early 20th century, appearing in silent works such as Georges Méliès’ 1904 short “The Mermaid” and John G. Adolfi’s 1918 film “Queen of the Sea.” among others. The mythic archetype was later revived as an effervescent love interest model for numerous romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, with the concept perfected in Irving Pichel’s much-loved talky “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid,” with Ann Blyth.
The signature siren songs of these mysterious ocean dwellers have turned into a series of musicals from MGM aqua. (You may recall: Those were sent by Scarlett Johansson in the Coen Brothers’ spoofy 2016 film “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 long before in the 1984 Academy Award-nominated romantic comedy “Splash,” directed by Ron Howard. Howard’s film is part of a string of contemporary mermaid novels, from Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum’s glittering “Aquamarine” to M. Night Shyamalan’s insufferable “Lady in the Water.”
Winner of Best Picture of 2018, Guillermo del Toro’s masterful ‘The Shape of Water’ captures the second slippery side of mermaids in film: As much as mermaids are portrayed as beautiful damsels, they can also be ferocious monsters that drag heroes into the dark depth . Mermaids, or mermen in general, have been the villains in a number of projects; most notably in Universal’s black-and-white classic “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Sure, one could argue that it’s a sea monster movie instead of a mermaid movie. But with glamorous films like “Luca” asking the same question, while so clearly fitting the merry “best mermaid movie” bill, it seems like a semantic rather than a thematic argument.
Ranked by entertainment value and category relevance, here are the 23 best movies about mermaids, sea monsters, and magical creatures that walk 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”: The Swim in theaters May 26.
With editorial contributions from Kate Erbland.