Czech That Film Tour 2017: Little From the Fish Shop, by Dayne Linford
It’s hard to think of a story as oft-told as that concerning the diminutive mermaid who wanted to be human. Even before Hans Christian Anderson found a way to assert that the mermaid would make it into heaven, the story was a well-known children’s tale, and there’s got to be scores of tellings under the auspices of Disney’s renditions alone. Despite all of that, there’s nothing I’ve seen that’s anywhere near as interesting, troubling, and moving a rendition as Jan Balej’s stop-motion animated take, Little from the Fish Shop.
Having given up the ocean as lost, the Fish King and his family relocate to the harbor, setting up a fish shop there and hoping to make it in the human world. Little, the youngest child, is on the eve of her sixteenth birthday when she meets H.H., a patron of the fish shop, and falls in love. Drawn to the world outside of the shop and determined to be human for her hopeful-beloved, Little travels into the sewer to see the witch, bargaining her long, youthful hair, her most precious possession, to be human. Miserable and in pain, Little finds H.H. on the streets and soon strikes up a romance with him, taking the premiere position as the cashier at his brothel. Truer to the original tale than anything from Disney, in this telling the boy grows tired of Little and leaves her behind for another flame, this time to be married, banishing Little to the kitchen. Her sisters, hopeful they can rescue her, go to the witch and also bargain, offering their hair for the opportunity to get Little back. In return, they receive a dagger, which, if Little plunges it into the heart of the man who betrayed her, will grant her freedom and return her to being a mermaid.
Moving the action from the sea to exile on the harbor is the first masterstroke in this little film, lending it an instant melancholy and a sense of homelessness. Here, the sea is beautiful and treacherous, but its loss carries throughout the film, often lingering in the background, a home none of them can return to. In that way, it mirrors Little herself, alienated, diminutive, but perhaps dangerous, especially as she climbs the stairs clutching a magic dagger. As the narrator (Oldrich Kaiser) asks near the beginning, “Who’s the small, harmless fish and who’s the shark?”
This kind of deceptive doubling plays out all through the film, in a mirrored structure, in Little’s family dynamic, even in her beloved’s recycled girlfriends. Particularly as a treatment of femininity in a rotten place, Little from the Fish Shop is really powerful, emphasizing the symbolic and mature elements of the original tale and building upon them. For instance, when she goes to the see the witch, a symbolic loss of virginity, seen through the cut hair (her most precious possession), and the cracking of spoiled eggs to make the “potion”, the film eschews the sexually restrictive posture of Anderson’s rendition, focusing on Little’s choices and their consequences without morality tales. Especially as the film builds to its conclusion and passes on the H.H.’s betrayal of Little, her love remains strong and honestly convincing, though surrounded by images of feminine bondage and sexual purchase. In a fascinating way, by reversing of the ideology of Anderson’s version, the film recenters itself around Little, the mermaid, as a protagonist, when most tellings focus on her disempowerment through the sacrifice of her most precious possession – in actuality, her agency.
Strikingly, though, Little from the Fish Shop is fairly clear-eyed about the world Little so eagerly wishes to enter, and it keeps to the older aesthetic of fairy-tales: beautiful, hopeful tragedies, later abrogated by Anderson and Disney. Now, in a moment of cultural alienation and trouble, the film reclaims the original story as a film. In two key, mirrored sequences, Little’s older sister, Middle, relates to her, in the first sequence, the events of her day, and in the second, much later, how her family has been since Little left. In each moment, Little makes Middle’s words into films, literally projected on a nearby wall and lending her own richness to what, at first, is kept from her, and later, has been lost. But the narrator provides a further doubling of Little’s projections, describing them successively as “somewhat far from reality” and then “not far from reality,” a characterization fitting not only Little’s visions, but our own vision of her, similarly projected inside of our own heads. This beautiful, terrible vision, both the lie and the truth of it, we share with her for that short moment, and perhaps come away with some reflections of our own.