Given a choice, I think I’d like to be a mermaid.

A life as a fabled sea princess, the quintessence of childhood fantasy, boasts the inevitable advantages of a feisty temper, endless hours of water ballet and the unshakable guarantee of universal adoration (even sea snails love a hot mermaid). Then again, it’s all so self-defeating. Centuries of legend, not to mention Disney animation studios, have unequivocally proven that mermaids will always pine hopelessly for humans – from heroic princes to Tom Hanks.

Aquamarine (Sara Paxton, “Sleepover”), the eponymous mer-heroine of a film aimed squarely at the demographic designed to sit and weigh with perfect austerity the proposition above, is in love. His name is Raymond (Jake McDorman, next to star in the groundbreaking “Bring It On 3”), and he’s appropriately dreamy. Washed up in a calamitous tempest, the fishy blonde is discovered by a pair of best friends, Claire (Emma Roberts, “Blow”) and Hailey (pop star JoJo making her big-screen debut). It’s very lucky they do, because Hailey is in danger of being carted off to Australia and the only way for the duo to stay together is help Aquamarine find love and thereby win a wish from the cheery humanoid.

The most obvious problem with a film like “Aquamarine” isn’t really one of substance so much as concept (concept, in this case, equating to a certain lack of substance). This is a film for 12-year-old girls about a wish-granting mermaid who falls in love with a bronzed lifeguard. The absurdity of its premise and the neatly satisfactory manner in which the plot ties up in a sweet moral about the endurance of friendship and selflessness is an inherent limitation to any artistic aspirations the film might secretly cherish.

But limitations are not obstacles, and “Aquamarine” too often comes up shoulder-shrugging its excuses of genre and target audience when it might have showcased some legitimately innovative filmmaking. “The Princess Diaries” was based on as silly and implausible a plot, aiming for the allowance of precisely the same dreamy-eyed tweens, but in its playful manipulation of stock situations and the exuberance of characters artfully crafted to explode from the mold of escapist fantasies, the film transcended its goofy beginnings to become a unique and inspired film. Not so for “Aquamarine,” which limps along on the crutches of instruction-manual moviemaking.

At least it never really stumbles. “Aquamarine” aims for mediocrity, but it gets there with spectacular grace. First-time feature director Elizabeth Allen competently weaves her story’s several threads, thankfully too aware of the screenplay’s predictability to dwell long on all its supposed revelations. The serious flaws are ones of motivation and acting (the film’s most convincing performance comes from JoJo, an “actress” selected for her ability to sing), but Allen maintains a tone of such stalwart cheeriness that it’s easy to overlook them.

There’s no doubt that an army of 12-year-old girls is willing to do exactly that. But if “Aquamarine” is obvious and conventional (which, make no mistake, it is), it’s equal parts funny, sincere and wholesome. Not least among its virtues is Aquamarine herself: naturally bubbly, beautiful and elegant. And honestly, who doesn’t love a mermaid?

At the Showcase and Quality 16
Fox 2000

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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