Paddington (Film)

Paddington CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Paul King (director, writer, story); Hamish McColl (story); David Heyman (producer)
Main Cast: Ben Whishaw; Sally Hawkins; Hugh Bonneville; Madeleine Harris; Samuel Joslin; Julie Walters; Jim Broadbent; Nicole Kidman; Peter Capaldi; Tim Downie; Michael Gambon; Imelda Staunton
First Shown: 28th November, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The original Paddington Bear books, by Michael Bond (who has a cameo in the film), began publication in the late 1950s. The film isn’t a retelling of any specific book, but follows the same basic idea. Paddington’s (Ben Whishaw) home in Peru is destroyed, so he stows away on a ship heading for London. Once there, he ends up at Paddington Station, where he meets the Brown family. But things take a sinister turn when a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) finds out he’s arrived.

I wasn’t sure how funny I’d find the film, as some of the humour stems from Paddington not understanding what’s going on and making mistakes. However, the funny side tended to be that things turned out unexpectedly, rather than Paddington feeling embarrassed or upset. I find the former funny, but the latter makes me uncomfortable. So I was glad it focused on unexpected resolutions.

The interactions between the Browns were great. At the start, there are obviously tensions in the family. Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is very serious and obsessed with trying to shield everyone from risks. Judy (Madeleine Harris) sides with him over Paddington, because she wants the family to appear normal and not be embarrassing. On the other side, there’s Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins), who is an artist, and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), who dreams of being an astronaut. The dreamer side of the family want to help Paddington. I liked seeing how the family came together and sorted out their differences.

However, my favourite member of the family was Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), an elderly relative. Her asides, and her practical approach to dealing with Paddington, were very funny. She knows what’s really going on, even if it takes the Browns a little longer to figure it out.

There’s a magical realism feel to the film. Paddington causes some comment, but most people either ignore that he’s a bear or accept it after an initial comment. Things shift around the characters, such as the mural changing in the Brown’s house, the band playing the background music appearing in the scene, and the dolls house in the attic becoming a tiny version of the Brown’s house. This works particularly well due to the film being live action, as it grounds the surreal elements in the real.

One possible issue is whether people will make the connection between a bear in a children’s story and real refugees. I felt this was handled reasonably well, as there are references that reinforce this connection. Paddington has a label around his neck, reminiscent of child evacuees in World War II. This is stated directly in the film by his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who hopes it will remind people of their past kindness. Putting this into the story was a nice touch, as it’s something the author of the books said was a direct inspiration for Paddington’s label.

Some of the hostility Paddington faces is based on fears about immigrants. The Brown’s neighbour, Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), is worried that bears will end up taking over the neighbourhood and keep him awake with their jungle music. The narrative makes it very clear that Mr Curry isn’t a nice person. In contrast, Paddington also meets Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent), who was a Jewish child refugee. Mr Gruber is warm, kind, and everything Mr Curry isn’t.

Colonialism is tackled in the tradition of snark and sarcasm. The film opens with an old colonial explorer (Tim Downie) on an expedition to Peru. He’s taken only the essentials, which means a trail of baggage including a large clock and a piano. Later, as the bears are learning English from a recording, it announces to them that British people have numerous words for rain, in a parody of the statements made about Inuit people and snow. Peru is referred to as Darkest Peru, as it is in the book, though the repetition of this is taken to an extreme that highlights its ridiculousness. Many of these moments are subtle, but clear in their critique of colonial attitudes.

The choice of villain also reinforces an anti-colonial narrative: she’s a taxidermist working at the Natural History Museum, who wants to return to a time when the best way to deal with a new species was to kill it and mount it as a trophy. She represents the old values, with all the problems that come with them. Her scenes are particularly chilling, because she is so callous about the value of life.

Though I generally liked the film, there were moments I didn’t like. There’s a scene where Mr Brown dresses as a woman as a disguise and a security guard flirts with him. These kinds of scenes rely on the idea that a man dressing as a woman is inherently funny, and that a man flirting with another man is funny. I did like some aspects of how it was handled though. Mr Brown later comments on the clothing being liberating. The disguise represents the first risk he takes to help Paddington, stepping outside of the constrictive life he’s constructed. It’s more unusual to follow up such scenes with a positive framing (it tends to be “never again, because I’m a manly man” rather than “actually, that was fine”).

I recognise that Paddington being called Paddington is unavoidable given the source, but it does still make me wince that he gets named because his name is deemed unpronounceable. That’s always been the part of the story that doesn’t sit well with me.

Paddington is a light-hearted family film with genuinely funny moments. I enjoyed seeing the Brown family come together and loved the visual style. The topic of refugees and immigration is as relevant now as ever, and the film presents this in a positive way. I would note some of the taxidermy scenes could be frightening for younger viewers. No animals are harmed, but the intentions are clear, and there are previously stuffed animals on show.

Zootropolis

Zootropolis Bluray CoverAlternate Titles: Zootopia
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin; Jason Bateman; Idris Elba; J.K. Simmons; Jenny Slate; Tommy Chong; Octavia Spencer; Nate Torrence; Shakira
First Shown: February, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the first bunny police officer in the city of Zootropolis. She fights for acceptance by trying to crack a missing mammals case, and she has a lead: fox con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

This was a strong film in many areas. The worldbuilding of Zootropolis was fun, with multiple anthro animal species living in various biomes in the city. Business hamsters get to work via tubes. Trains have doors of different sizes for the various animals. It created a complex and colourful world.

The story was also great. Judy has a mystery to solve, which touches on the prejudices running through Zootropolis. At the same time, her relationship with Nick develops from uneasy cooperation to close friends. There are a lot of fun side characters, including singer superstar Gazelle (Shakira) and terse police chief Bogo (Idris Elba).

Prejudice is a major theme of the story. Judy joins the police force as part of a diversity initiative. She has to be the best of the best at the academy, and is still assumed to not be good enough due to her species. The police station is clearly not designed for smaller animals, as the chairs are so tall she has to struggle to climb on them. The police world is literally not designed for her.

Judy and Nick both face discrimination for their species, and both have their own prejudices to overcome. For Judy, being a small prey animal means it’s assumed she can’t do the job. Bunnies are seen as cute, easily scared, and not very smart. For Nick, the assumed aggression of predators becomes a bad thing. It makes a lion a fearless leader, but it means a fox can’t be trusted. The story touches on microaggressions, from Nick touching a sheep’s wool, to animals shuffling away from species they don’t trust. Even Judy, who tries so hard not to be prejudiced, still holds beliefs that predators are naturally aggressive because it’s in their DNA. Nick becomes the exception in her eyes, rather than the example that disproves the rule. Prejudice is complicated, and I liked that the film embraces that.

However, unlike the real world, the discrimination can go both ways. Initially it looks as though larger predators, such as big cats and wolves, hold a privileged position. In some respects, they do. But it’s also possible for them to be on the receiving end of discrimination, which isn’t how the balance between privileged and marginalised works in the real world. It was believable in the context of the world of Zootropolis, but does mean it’s not a perfect metaphor for talking about real discrimination.

On the subject of things in the real world, there are some nods to that. Though being a woman isn’t a cause for discrimination for Judy, she stands out on that basis to the viewer. Her small size and strength are clearly a factor in deciding she’s unsuited to police work. Yet she succeeds anyway, despite the additional obstacles thrown in her way.

There are also Judy’s neighbours, who are both male antelopes (of different species) and presumably living together in a room a similar size to Judy’s. Though I took them to be a married couple, I figured if I looked it up there’d be something making it plain they weren’t. Turns out they share a hyphenated family name, so I will continue viewing them as a married couple.

Less great was the introduction to Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the cheetah who staffs the main desk. The joke of him finding a half-eaten doughnut in his neck fat was something I could have done without. It’s a big misstep for a story tackling prejudice to fall into fat jokes. They could easily have stuck with laughs based on him being a superfan of Gazelle, which wasn’t poking fun at his weight.

I really enjoyed the film. Though I felt there were some weaker points, such as the fat jokes, it was a well-paced mystery with interesting character relationships. The world was beautifully done. There’d be a lot of potential for more stories in this world, but even if there aren’t any sequels, this was a satisfying story.

H2O: Just Add Water (Season Three)

H2O: Just Add Water (Australian Season 3 DVD Cover, with Bella in foreground)

H2O: Just Add Water is a mermaid series for teens and tweens, which ran for three seasons between 2006 and 2010. Part 1 (over here) considers the series in the context of other mermaid media and reviews season one. Part 2 (over here) reviews season two. Part 3 (this section) deals with season three, wider themes/issues and the upcoming spinoff series, Secret of Mako Island.

(Due to covering three seasons, there are some inevitable spoilers and a few stand-alone episodes are discussed in more detail. However, I’ve avoided discussing the season finales and there will still be a lot of surprises.)

Review: Season Three

Plot Overview

Emma is off travelling with her family, so Cleo and Rikki are left alone. The Juicenet Cafe has closed, and Zane buys it, so that he can run it with Rikki. On the night of the opening, a water tentacle attacks the girls. New girl in town, Bella (Indiana Evans), jumps in the water to help, revealing she’s a mermaid.

The girls travel to the Moon Pool, where they find freediver Will (Luke Mitchell). He’d swum in through the sea entrance and was knocked unconscious by the tentacle as it appeared. They tell him it was all a hallucination, but Will is uncertain.

Now the girls have the mystery of the tentacle to solve, along with trying to get through their last year at school.

Antagonists

The main antagonist is Sophie, Will’s sister. She’s ruthless in the pursuit of profit, so it’s not that she has a personal issue with the girls. Unlike previous antagonists, she has no interest in mermaids. It’s simply that she has no qualms about what happens to anyone who gets in the way of making money.

Despite this, there are signs she does genuinely care about Will. It’s just that she loses sight of it sometimes when money is at stake.

Allies

Lewis is still around at the start of the season, but heads off part way through. Taking up the slack is Will, a talented freediver who’s being pushed to go professional by his sister.

Mermaid stories usually de-emphasise human aquatic abilities. Mermaid allies may well be poor swimmers. If they’re comfortable in the water, it’ll be related to a surface water sport. Having an ally who can hold his breath and swim to reasonable depths is unusual. It also works well, because it gives Will an understanding of the mermaids that other allies have lacked (and it’s not as though freedivers will ever be mermaid replacements… even a talented human can’t swim as fast, or hold their breath for as long, as the mermaids).

It does mean he has an initial mermaid squee reaction to finding out mermaids are real, but he settles down soon enough, and comes to see the girls as friends he can share his love of the ocean with.

Overall Views

My criticism of the second season is it took a long time for the plot to get going. This wasn’t the case in season three, where the plot of the water tentacle is introduced in the first episode and builds towards much higher stakes finale than the previous seasons.

Emma was absent as the actress had another job. Lewis was also gone for part of the series for the same reason. Which meant the new characters of Bella and Will were introduced. This did have some advantages, as both Bella and Will have lived very sheltered lives, with a lot of travelling and little time to socialise. The result is they’re still navigating things others might deal with as younger teens, giving space for Cleo and Rikki to face older challenges.

More specifically, Rikki is dealing with running a business with Zane. Cleo is dealing with disruptions at home (her dad meets someone new and her sister is now a teenager), and a new job as a dolphin trainer (which presumably could be her future career).

The pacing of the season was pretty good, with a mix of the main plot and the sub-plots. I liked that the girls were facing more adult concerns. The eventual stakes in the finale got an eyebrow raise from me, but they do make sense in terms of the worldbuilding done for the mermaids in the series. This was a better conclusion than the previous season, and not a bad place to end the story.

Series Overview

Mermaid Design

Turning into mermaids on contact with water and mermaid powers are fairly standard in modern mermaid stories (though I haven’t seen Bella’s water-to-jelly power before). Shapeshifting with all worn items is a little more unusual. Most mermaids transform naked and have to find clothes. But given the short episodes, it’s a lot easier for filming to have them shapeshift complete with clothes (and they do use the idea in fun ways, such as Emma dying her hair red as a mermaid, but it staying her original colour as a human).

The most unusual thing with the mermaid design was the reactions to the full moon. Seeing the moon or its reflection can cause them to act like they’re intoxicated and possibly give them temporary abilities. As the girls spend more time as mermaids, this lessens, but the moon cycles remain significant.

The girls themselves joke about it being werewolf time, but it does make more sense for mermaids than werewolves. The moon has a big impact on the oceans, so the idea that mermaids would be sensitive to it isn’t that far-fetched. As the series progresses, it becomes clear it’s more complicated than that. The position of the planets and other heavenly bodies also has an impact. And there’s a suggestion about why this might have come about in the first place.

Continuity

There are issues with continuity in the story. Some are likely budget concerns, as actors aren’t rehired after their part of the story is done. It would’ve been interesting to see what Charlotte was up to in season three or to see Miriam from season one develop as a character. Perhaps to have the girls go to Miss Chatham or Max for advice sometime. These people wouldn’t have all vanished mysteriously in real life.

Others are clearly mistakes. Ronnie turns from a wild rescue dolphin to a captive bred one. Rikki forgets that Cleo has painful singing.

Generally though, the continuity isn’t too bad. There are some fun things that carry over, such as Lewis using his spiral lure anytime he fishes.

Racial Diversity

When I first saw the cover photo, I did wonder about Phoebe Tonkin’s (Cleo’s) race* (and judging from my internet searches, other people have too). However, she seems to identify as white and she’s portrayed as white in the series**. And she’s as dark and non-Northern European as any main characters get.

There are some side characters of other races, so if anyone’s about to argue that everyone in Australia is white… no, they’re not, and clearly they had no issues finding non-white actors for background parts.

Given that the series ran for three seasons, with eight different mermaids plus assorted love interests, they could have widened the net for their main character casting choices. As well as general issues of diversity, it reinforces the trope of non-white people never getting to be the cool non-humans (and thus never the centre of supernatural stories).

Romantic Relationships

All of the relationships are between a boy and a girl. This may not be something the writers can control, as the networks often insist on that for child and young teen shows. But it’s still something that needs mentioning, because somewhere along the line, someone’s deciding that only heterosexual children and teens get to see themselves and their issues.

On a positive note for the show, it doesn’t glorify abusive stalker relationships. When the boys act in ways that are controlling, this is shown as a bad thing. The girls also aren’t vilified for handling relationships their own way. They can break up with boyfriends, have different boyfriends or not date (they’re not all actively dating when the series ends). However, it did bother me that all the boys had controlling moments. Even though the narrative tended to slap the boys when they tried, it would have been nice if at least one of them didn’t feel the need to try.

Cleo and Lewis’s relationship was good to see after a few too many books. Young adult novels are a little prone to partners who are fated to be together, like it or not. This predestined bond gets used as an excuse for all sorts of abuse. So seeing a one-true-love setup where there’s no predestination, only two people who’ve grown up together and are close friends, is nice.

Women in Science

The handling of women in science wasn’t ideal in the first season. Though Doctor Denman is portrayed as being a talented scientist, she’s also the target of appearance-based criticisms (that she can’t be a real scientist due to being pretty). The girls generally avoid science, leaving it to Lewis.

The second season has Cleo fail biology and need to retake it, because she can’t cope with science. Though her student mentor is Charlotte, and Cleo does pass after her extra study, there’s still a vibe of science not being for girls.

This turns around in the third season. Cleo and Lewis work together on analysing the tentacle and Moon Pool. When Lewis leaves, Cleo continues the study, and is also shown working hard at science at school. A new science teacher character is a woman, who’s shown as competent, without any of the overtones aimed at Doctor Denman. (Though an eye-roll is directed at the fact Cleo starts wearing glasses in this season.)

Taken as a whole, this creates a character arc where Cleo starts out avoiding science because she doesn’t think it’s for girls, slowly realises she can do it if she studies, and starts to become enthusiastic about it by the end. I don’t believe this was the plan from the start (season three wasn’t in the original plan), but it was a reasonable way to redirect problematic elements of season one.

Final Summary

There are issues with the series. Season two flounders, and the way side characters vanish is a sign of budget considerations. There’s also a big lack of diversity among the main cast. This is an issue in mermaid shows and films in general, but H2O didn’t exactly decide to break the trend.

However, I enjoyed it overall. The mermaid lore went to some interesting places, and I liked that the personal issues the girls face age with them. The visuals are nice, the characters are relatable for the intended audience, and it’s generally strong on its depiction of women and girls (and where it’s not, it’s a talking point***). If you’re looking for something generally fluffy and fun, plus mermaids, H2O is one to watch.

The Secret of Mako Island

It is good to show that boys can be merpeople too (or fairies or riders of sparklie pink unicorns), but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t backslide to the old male-centric focus, where girls and women were just the accessories in the stories of the men.

This test is coming up for the makers of H2O with their next series, The Secret of Mako Island. In this, Zac falls into the Moon Pool and gains merpowers (early sources disagreed on whether he gets a fish tail or finned feet… but the promotional photos show a tail). This causes problems for three mermaids guarding the pool, who grow legs and head onto land to find him.

Potentially, this could go very wrong, becoming a story where Zac’s needs are the core of the story at all times. However, if they create a friendship group much like the mermaids and Lewis in the previous series, it could work. A boy as part of the group is different from a boy dominating the group.

The series does address one of the H2O issues. Zac’s actor – Chai Roumune – is mixed raced Thai/White Australian, which is a first for the merpeople (or any of the main characters) in the franchise. How well they handle this will be one of the areas I’ll be looking for when the series is available.

On a story level, they need to find new places to go. It does look set to continue developing the mermaid lore, with sea-dwelling mermaid pods (something hinted as possible in season three, but not actually shown). There have been promotional shots of an older mermaid instructing the three girls, so there’s potential for showing pod politics and family.

For now, I’ll remain cautiously optimistic.

* Based on the cover image for this post, you might wonder what I mean about Phoebe Tonkin. She looked more obviously different in the season one cover photo, and appears to have been lightening on the covers as the seasons have gone on.

** The distinction between character and actor is important. It’s not unusual for lighter non-white actors to be paled down and given Northern European family members, in order to portray them as white characters. It’s also not unusual for mixed race characters to be played by white people.

*** I grew up chatting about the things I watched with my parents. And later with my friends. I learnt a lot about social issues that way. So I look for the potential for being a conversation opener in series for younger viewers. You’re never too young to start analysing what you watch.

H2O: Just Add Water (Season Two)

H2O: Just Add Water (Australian DVD Cover)

H2O: Just Add Water is a mermaid series for teens and tweens, which ran for three seasons between 2006 and 2010. Part 1 (over here) considers the series in the context of other mermaid media and reviews season one. Part 2 (this section) reviews season two. Part 3 (over there) deals with season three, wider themes/issues and the upcoming spinoff series, Secret of Mako Island.

(Due to covering three seasons, there are some inevitable spoilers and a few stand-alone episodes are discussed in more detail. However, I’ve avoided discussing the season finales and there will still be a lot of surprises.)

Review: Season Two

Plot Overview

The girls (Cleo, Rikki and Emma) have settled into their lives as mermaids. This is thrown off when they gain additional powers (over weather elements – wind for Cleo, lightning for Rikki and snow for Emma), but they soon learn to handle them.

Their personal lives are another matter. Cleo is dealing with her parent’s divorce and confused about her relationship with Lewis. Things get complicated for Rikki when her ex-boyfriend reappears. Emma has continuing issues hiding things from her family, and there’s friction when she meets riding instructor Ash.

Whilst this is going on, a new girl at school – Charlotte – takes a shine to Lewis. Cleo takes an instant dislike to Charlotte as she still has feelings for Lewis, and thus a love triangle is born.

The season is slow to get going, but after a lot of floundering, we find out some more about the 1950s mermaids and the final conflict becomes apparent.

Antagonists

Charlotte is not instantly obvious as an antagonist. She’s intelligent, artistic and is initially friendly. But there are early hints that she’s self-centred and manipulative. When the focus starts to slip away from her, a smile and the right comment switches things around so she gets her way. When she organises a party for Lewis, it’s clearly what she wants… his preferences don’t factor into it.

That said, being a bit manipulative doesn’t make a person instantly hateable. Charlotte’s motives for her interest in Mako Island are sympathetic. It’s understandable that the girls don’t want Charlotte finding anything out, as she might expose them, but it’s also understandable why Charlotte wants to know.

One plus side is that criticisms of Charlotte are based on her behaviour and motives. Cleo drew away from the appearance slams used in the first season, and no one else jumps on that wagon either. Charlotte’s heavier than the other girls, yet there’s a lack of classic fat stereotypes – she doesn’t overeat, she’s not unfit and she doesn’t hate herself. Her issues with the girls are not connected to her looks*.

There weren’t as many minor antagonists this time around. Nate, Zane’s best friend, was the main one. He took a similar role to Miriam, as the shallow antagonist who causes minor issues here and there. There’s never anything deeper there.

Allies

Lewis continues to be the biggest ally for the girls, though this is tested due to the love triangle (Charlotte doesn’t like Lewis hanging out with the girls). In the first season, Lewis had his moments of being a little over-protective and clingy. He goes all out in the early part of the second season… and get slapped for it. This behaviour initially causes Cleo to dump him. Later, when he tries to overrule a decision the girls have made, they go for it anyway and prove him wrong. Afterwards, he admits they were right.

After endless stories where overprotectiveness is shown as desirable, and girls who go against the wishes of men/boys always have it blow up in their face (should’ve listened to the menfolk!), it’s nice to see the reverse. Lewis does a whole bunch of maturing towards realising people in relationships need to be equals and don’t need to be in each other’s space 24/7.

A new edition is Max, an elderly man who was friends with the ’50s mermaids (in a similar role to Lewis).

Class Issues

Rikki’s home is shown for the first time. It wasn’t a surprise that she lived in the trailer park, as there’d been hints, but this time it was on-screen.

It’s common for poor people to be shown as universally bad, outside of the poor young protagonist who is trying to rise above it. Their parents will be abusive, greedy and a waste of space. H2O didn’t go down that route, which was heartening to see. Rikki’s dad obviously cares about his daughter and they have a close relationship. He’s not poor because he’s lazy and evil. He’s poor because his job doesn’t pay well and there’s nothing he can do about it (which is the reality for most poor people).

Rikki is hesitant to bring her friends home, due to what they might think. Some of Rikki’s differences in attitude to money were clear in this season too. She doesn’t like people giving her money and gifts, seeing it as charity**. This is in comparison to rich boy Zane, who throws money and gifts around, because it’s never been something he had to worry about.

Irresistible – Episode Comments

One episode introduces a scent which mesmerises the girls. They’ll do anything the wearer says, and don’t remember any of it once out of the scent’s range. Though presented in a tween-friendly mermaid magic way, it’s a clear analogue to using alcohol or drugs to control girls. Though some of the scenarios are played for comedy, the boys take the threat seriously and the girls are clearly upset afterwards. They don’t blame themselves, which sounds like a small thing, but too often themes like this end up with the girls thinking it was their fault.

I had mixed feelings on this one. It’s a little twee for the serious nature of the subject, but it’s also not a bad first introduction to it either. The blame is placed where it’s due and the overall conclusion is it isn’t acceptable.

Overall Views

This season was weaker than the first. There were some fun stand-alone stories (sea fungus!), it was good to see Rikki’s home life and I liked Max. But the main storyline took too long to get going. It floundered around in love triangle land and some episodes hardly had any mermaiding. Once the season finale got going, it was a lot stronger, but it was a bit of a slog getting there at times.

Originally, two seasons were planned, so this would have been the end. The two main storylines are ended in a satisfying way. The girls are left at a point where things are stable. The gaps in the ’50s story are filled in by Max. Of course, it didn’t end there, as a third season was produced, but the writers had to polish things off as though there wasn’t going to be another season.

* On the other hand, fan comments can be a scary, scary place. There are a lot of criticisms of Charlotte’s weight, saying she’s fat and ugly, and they can’t imagine why anyone would want to date her. This ties in to my comments on season one, about using appearance criticisms against female antagonists. It happens so often, people internalise it as normal behaviour. The people who criticise a fictional character based on appearance rather than behaviour are going to be treating real people in exactly the same way.

One series can’t change the tide, but it doesn’t mean they have to add to it.

** I’ve had problems trying to explain this in the science fiction and fantasy writing world. It’s a lot harder to apply for a grant for conventions and courses when you’ve been raised with less money. Money is a big deal. Not being able to support yourself is a big deal. So accepting money, especially for something that isn’t life-or-death, is a lot harder than it might be for someone where money has never been an issue (and therefore isn’t viewed as being as important). This tends to get dismissed as ‘silly’, when it’s an issue that does need to be considered, because the people who most need grants can be the least likely to apply. Telling them they’re stupid and failing to understand why doesn’t help.

H2O: Just Add Water (Season One)

H2O: Just Add Water (UK DVD Cover)

H2O: Just Add Water is a mermaid series for teens and tweens, which ran for three seasons between 2006 and 2010*. Part 1 (this section) considers the series in the context of other mermaid media and reviews season one. Part 2 (over here) reviews season two. Part 3 (over there) deals with season three, wider themes/issues and the upcoming spinoff series, Secret of Mako Island.

(Due to covering three seasons, there are some inevitable spoilers and a few stand-alone episodes are discussed in more detail. However, I’ve avoided discussing the season finales and there will still be a lot of surprises.)

The Modern Mermaid

Early mermaid legends were very male-centric. It was about the man being rescued by the mermaids or being lured to his death. Either way, it was a tale revolving around human men, where mermaids played a side role. When stories turned around to being from the mermaid’s perspective, the male focus stayed. Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid was driven by her attraction to a human man and was willing to give up being a mermaid for him. She wasn’t allowed to have needs and desires outside of that.

There were some early examples which subverted the trend. Splash, a 1984 romantic comedy, had a happy-ever-after that didn’t require the mermaid giving up her tail (though the writers of the TV movie sequel were clearly uncomfortable with that, and tried to reverse the original story). But it’s taken longer to see a full shift to a story where being a mermaid, and the friendships between mermaids/girls, is the central focus.

An example of the female-centric approach is teen movie Aquamarine. Though Aqua believes she’ll win the day by getting a boy to fall in love with her, it’s actually the friendships she forms with the girls that are the important things (as Aqua eventually realises). Such an approach can also include main male characters. The novel Above World (Jenn Reese) has two viewpoint characters – a merboy and mergirl – but it doesn’t become all about the boy. Both characters have important roles in the quest. The mergirl is not an accessory for the merboy (or vice versa).

This is not a universal shift though, with many stories still focusing on the mermaid willing to give up everything for a man/boy, with no focus on female friendship or her own needs. Stories with merboys and mermen as main characters can easily shift into this, such as Legacy Lost (Anna Banks), where the mergirl is there to be beautiful and die tragically, and the story focuses on the merboy’s pain. This is on a level with the old sailor stories, where it was never really about the mermaids.

H2O: Just Add Water is an example of taking the story back to the mermaids. The central conflict is the girls dealing with being mermaids, with a focus on their friendship. They date and are friends with boys, but they don’t exist simply to be part of the boys’ stories.

Review: Season One

Plot Overview

Cleo (Phoebe Tonkin), Rikki (Cariba Heine) and Emma (Claire Holt) are three 15-year-old girls living on the coast of Australia. After getting lost on Mako Island, they fall down into a cave with a pool. The only way out is to swim, but as they do so, the moon comes over the pool and the water bubbles.

The next day, each girl carries out her usual routine. Seconds after they get wet, they turn into mermaids. It isn’t long before they discover they have other powers. Cleo can shape water, Emma can freeze it and Rikki can boil it.

Initially, they try to keep this a secret from everyone, but Cleo’s best friend Lewis (Angus McLaren) finds out. He agrees to help the girls hide their secret and tries to use science to help them, with mixed success.

Much of the series deals with the basic conflict of learning what it means to be a mermaid and how to deal with everyday life. Emma has to give up competitive swimming, which has been her life since she was little. Cleo has to overcome her fear of water and accept she can’t be an ordinary girl. And Rikki just thinks it’s awesome, which is awesome in itself… she’s a much needed counter to the other two girls, confronting them directly for whining when they’re talking about how terrible it is to get special magical powers.

Antagonists

The main antagonist is Zane, a boy the same age as the girls. He’s the local bully, but it’s quickly apparent this is a shield for covering up a poor relationship with his father. He has moments of genuine charm. This rounding out of his character makes him a lot more interesting, as he’s both hateable and likable at the same time. He has the potential to be both a villain and an ally.

A few more infrequent antagonists appear. The least developed is Miriam – she’s a rather stereotypical mean girl. Others include a marine biologist, who gets a look at a cell sample from the girls, and Zane’s father, who intends to build on Mako Island.

I generally liked the characterisation, as the two adult antagonists also had multiple sides to them. Miriam’s shallowness wasn’t ideal, but she also wasn’t a primary antagonist.

What I wasn’t fond of was the girls’ reaction to the biologist, Doctor Denman. Cleo doesn’t believe Denman is really a scientist due to being blonde and pretty. Though the other girls do give Cleo looks, and Emma has checked out Denman’s research, this isn’t behaviour that has any real consequence. Rikki latter joins in criticising Denman’s appearance.

Though this sort of casual internalised misogyny does happen among teens, it’s something I dislike seeing presented as perfectly okay. It would have been nice if someone (and Rikki would have been a good candidate, as she previously criticised the beauty pageant) had made a snarky remark, or otherwise reacted in a way that showed smiting your rival’s looks isn’t ideal. There was plenty of other stuff they could have criticised Denman over.

Allies

Emma comes from a stable family and gets advice from her mother and father. Her parents are shown as a strong partnership, rather than one dominating the other. This is in contrast to Cleo’s family, where her father dominates and mother is often quiet and worried in the background. In both cases, parents provide someone the girls can talk to. It’s nice not to see an over-reliance on parent/child arguments or parents who behave like they’re children and need looking after.

Outside of family, there’s Miss Chatham, a former mermaid from the 1950s. I particularly liked the girls having an older woman to help guide them. It not only highlighted mermaids supporting each other across generations, but that the girls in the ’50s were not so different. The underlying problems they faced were much like the modern mermaids.

The biggest ally, though, is Lewis. As Cleo’s best friend, he’s around a lot of time and does what he can to help. This is the area where the series could have failed, by making it into Lewis’s story – some writers seem to struggle not to do this whenever they have a male character in the group. Overall, this doesn’t happen. Lewis gets his own subplots and plays his part, but he’s one of the group rather than leading the group.

The Siren Effect – Episode Comments

The episode with the biggest potential for failure was about sirens. Cleo turns into one, and her singing causes all the teenaged boys in the area to gather around her.

This theme is often used in a way that promotes rape culture. The girl/woman loses control and the boys/men attack her. This is shown as her fault for being so irresistible (the boys/men couldn’t help themselves, etc). Though a children’s programme will handle this in a more innocent way, the eventual outcome would be boys grabbing, or trying to kiss, the irresistible girl and it all being portrayed as her fault.

Refreshingly, it didn’t go there. Cleo remains in control of her abilities and it never felt like she was at risk (not from the boys anyway). She does initiate contact with one boy, but again, she’s in control.

Overall Views

It was a strong first season, with characters I cared about and antagonists that had more going on than being evil because they were evil. The realities of having to avoid all water were handled well, down to Cleo bribing her sister to wash the dishes. Not being able to get wet in public would impact a lot of things (and they’re lucky they don’t live in England, given the amount of rain here).

Due to using physical tails rather than CGI, the show didn’t have to hold back on underwater shots. One of the lures of such a series is seeing the mermaids getting to be mermaids, so it was a good production decision.

There were some uncomfortable moments of misogyny (such as the criticism of Doctor Denman’s appearance). On the whole though, the season had more female-positive stuff than negative. It was very much the mermaids’ story.

There was a lack of diversity in some areas, such as racial / ethnic and sexualities, but that’ll be discussed more in part three, taking all three seasons into account.

* The version I borrowed is the German one, which has all three seasons (it has the option to switch between dubbed German and original English, so isn’t any different other than the language on the credits).