Sebastian, Disney’s calypso-inclined crustacean, may despair at “Little From the Fish Shop,” a sly update of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” in which his catchy counsel to remain underwater goes entirely unheeded. Relocating not just Andersen’s yearning heroine but her entire royal family to dry land, Jan Balej’s wittily designed stop-motion outing honors the sorrowful romantic narrative of the original tale to a far greater extent than the Mouse House’s 1989 smash — despite a radical shift in milieu to the red-light district of a seamy city harbor. Not especially suitable for, er, small fry, this touching, technically inventive twist on a classic will nonetheless be treasured by animation buffs. With distribution in a handful of territories already secured, more should follow in the wake of festival slots at Annecy and Karlovy Vary.
It’s no longer better down where it’s wetter, a somewhat elegiac prologue informs us, as we peer into silty depths made murkier by stray debris and floating garbage. The film’s ecological allegory is limited to this introduction, but it’s effective enough: So greatly have the oceans been polluted by humankind that not even the merfolk can survive in them. Instead, the Sea King and his family have been forced to move to the nearest port, where they learn to walk on their tails and work as fishmongers — about the most drastically macabre betrayal of their natural environment imaginable. (The fishiness of Balej’s merpeople extends well past their lower halves: Glassy round eyes and perma-pouts suggest rampant interspecific breeding in the fathoms below.)
As in Andersen’s tale, then, the King’s youngest daughter — simply named Little — develops a fascination with human behavior, albeit one cultivated at closer quarters. Forbidden from exiting the family shop before her 16th birthday, she enters the outside world a mass of vulnerable, pent-up curiosity, swiftly and unguardedly falling in love with older lothario JJ. (The character is named “Bogan” in the Czech narration, though the subtitles opt for some unrelated Anglicisms.) By any name, however, JJ is no Prince Eric: The oily proprietor of a nightclub-cum-brothel in the town’s murkiest alley, he no sooner seduces the hapless naif than he has her on bar duty, her tail having been traded for legs courtesy of a splendidly realized sewer-witch.
Following this unexpected deviation, however, the screenplay (by Balej and Ivan Arsenjev) retells the original story with notable fidelity and fluency. Only the spiritual dimension of Anderson’s ending is tempered for a slightly more fatalistic, less secular conclusion: Even if it lasts only a few days, we are told, the fleeting experience of pure happiness “still counts.” Our rather solemn narrator may stop short of any “better to have loved and lost” platitudes, but this moral restores a degree of tartness to the concept of a fairy-tale ending.
If the film’s storytelling is rooted in tradition, however, its delightful visual design — in appropriate tones of algae and sea glass — gives Balej’s imagination a far longer leash. Seamlessly fusing stop-motion puppetry with digital intervention, the helmer and his chief animator, Michael Carrington, forge a vivid world of equal parts urban realism and Expressionist grotesquerie, its perennially twilit streets seemingly built from papier-mache and tar. Central and peripheral characters are lovingly conceived and rendered, individually distinguished in a manner that recalls the paintings of George Grosz; human figures are given faintly amphibious features. Balej’s production design teems with grungy incidental details that position the unnamed harbor halfway between Marseilles and Hades. (In a particularly cheeky touch, JJ’s club is staffed by mechanical pole-dancers, their paper-doll bodies gyrating as lasciviously as their brass fasteners will allow.)
Characters converse in expressively garbled grunts; with no dialogue between them, the question of Little’s sacrificed voice (per Andersen’s story) doesn’t come into play. The warm, sage quality of Oldrich Kaiser’s Czech narration thus sets a suitable adult tone for proceedings, while also lending itself to uncomplicated English dubbing. An unusual score, by French electro artist Chapelier Fou with input from “Amelie” composer Yann Tiersen, strikes a distinctive, sometimes discordant balance between synthetic and orchestral elements — the latter occasionally played onscreen by a whimsical “fish symphony” troupe.