It’s a bright summer’s day, and Nettie Pearlman is a bright eyed 20 year old woman who has just moved into her new home on the island of Hibiscus Cove after realizing that she needed a change in her life. She enjoys singing, her pet seahorse Calypso, and… hm… she’s sure she’ll remember the rest of her hobbies later. Everything is fine! She quickly makes friends with her neighbors Iris, Hans, and Christian, and begins settling into her new life. Unfortunately, a trip to the local beach turns disastrous when she is dragged out to sea by an unnaturally strong riptide. Before Nettie can meet an unfortunate fate however, a familiar looking nereid comes to her rescue, granting her a conch shell pendant that transforms her into a mermaid so long as it is soaked in sea water. To Nettie’s disbelief, she soon finds out that not only can she transform into a mermaid, she has magical powers that she can use to fight the dark forces trying to capture her, and that she is no mere average girl, but a princess of the South Atlantic Sea!
Once she is able to free herself from the riptide’s spell, the nereid (who turns out to be her pet seahorse) tells Nettie what happened. As it stands, Nettie (or as she is known in the sea, Princess Sirenetta) is Calypso’s best friend and the youngest daughter of King Acquario. She was the only one of his daughters who was deeply infatuated with the surface world. This desire lead her to seek another nereid and make a wish- to be able to live her own life as a human on land. Her wish (to be a "normal human") wiped her memory of being a mermaid, and as a result she has been declared missing for over a month. Meanwhile, the King is desperate to see his daughter returned safely, offering a reward to anyone who can find her and bring her home. Now creatures from across the ocean are honing in on Hibiscus Cove in an attempt to claim the King’s unspecified reward- and darker entities realize that this could be an opportunity to overthrow Acquario’s rule entirely. Now Nettie has to fight off these foes in the form of a magical mermaid princess, maintain her secret identity as she struggles to enjoy her new life and learn about the surface world, and unravel her muddled past as she tries to figure out why she wanted to leave so badly to start with.
How does that all get worked out? Well, you’ll just have to watch it. Sirenetta is a completed six episode series started in 2013 by Mattimation Entertainment- now known as Tiny Siren Animation. The show runs for 40 minutes and 24 seconds if you include the credits and theme song for each episode, which is a really nice length for an independent production. Mattimation is a prolific creator of webtoons and produced two other shows before this- 5683 and SexXxy Save the World, all of which were successfully conceptualized, produced, and released. Chances are, I’ll end up reviewing those someday as well! Needless to say, by the time Sirenetta was produced, Mattimation had a lot of experience under his belt in constructing stories and producing animation, and it definitely shows.
The first thing that strikes anyone upon watching this show is the music. Sirenetta has six episodes, but has five unique songs composed specifically for the show- Be You, On My Own Two Feet, Just Dream, Nothing More, and The Siren Song. There’s a theme song, a credit song, and a smattering of other songs to add a musical flair to the show. These are genuinely fun to listen to, and I hummed a couple of them for a while after watching the show. The songs are distinct but use the same instruments and types of tunes, and as a result make the whole show feel more cohesive with a single musical aesthetic. Out of all of the songs though, I have to admit that Sirenetta’s theme song, Be You, is probably my favorite. I would have liked to hear more background music, however- I think it could have added a lot more impact and emotion to certain scenes, especially the battle scenes.
As for the visual aspects of the show, I really enjoy this show’s art style. It’s cute and works well for the mood and tone of the show, and Mattimation has a really good handle on character design. The character’s outfits are appropriate for each character's personality and have a excellent sense of fashion. There were a lot of times where I’d find myself going “Oh, I’d wear that.” or was otherwise just plain impressed with the designs. Even the strictly casual outfits have extra effort put into them. Most cartoons would just put a simple circle or something like that to indicate that the character is wearing a graphic tee, but Mattimation went the extra mile to make sure each shirt with a logo on it had a carefully printed vector, and then made sure that it moved properly when animated. That takes some effort! The outfits are designed to work with each individual character and show off their personalities too. Christian prefers formalwear whereas Hans is more relaxed. Another example is how Nettie’s family dresses appropriately for royalty, and MAN are those mermaid outfits well designed. They actually look like the artist took into account what people with those specific body shapes (ie, no legs) would wear and make them look like they were all from the same culture as opposed to just slapping regular dresses on everything.
Sirenetta's birthday outfit- and probably my favorite outfit in the show.
The sirens. Like mermaids mixed with a squid... or a parrot.
Mostrega, the sea witch and mer-plesiosaur.
Sirenetta's grandmother, with another very nice mermaid outfit.
The monsters and villains were well designed too. I loved how the sirens were based off of squids, allowing the creatures that sing and lure people to their doom to have beaks and thus slightly resemble birds- another type of creatures known for their beautiful songs. Furthermore, the main villain has a FANTASTIC design. While most regular mermaids in Sirenetta have tails that resemble those of fish or cetaceans, the sea witch Mostrega’s lower half is that of a grizzled old plesiosaur, and she can transform into one completely at will. The second I saw her outside of a silhouette, I was struck by how completely rad that design choice was. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve seen a mermaid designed like that before, and it works excellently to emphasize how ancient and powerful this villain is in comparison to our heroine.
However, the creator of this show puts a lot of effort into more subtle design elements as well. For example, the eyelashes of each character act as an indicator as to what species they are, allowing you to tell them apart at a glance. Humans have regular eyelashes. Mermaids, such as Nettie (even in her human form!) have a couple of extra hairs that make the eyes resemble the silhouette of a reef fish, and the villains (such as Mostrega and the sirens) have long, elegant eyelashes that make their eye shape resemble a shark. It’s subtle, but quite clever in my opinion. The show also has little nods to other media, if you know what to look for- Sirenetta’s band is a reference to another fairy tale, and cameos of Mattimation’s other characters are visible in the crowd in the final episode.
In addition, there’s another not so subtle change that has a small (but useful!) effect on the plot. In the episode “Ferry Tale”, Nettie dyes her hair partially purple as a half-hearted disguise. On a basic level, this is used to make her design look a little fancier and for a gag with one of the villains, and… that’s it. However, this episode is also host to two narrative changes: 1.This is when Nettie starts transforming into her mermaid form a lot more frequently, and 2. This is the episode where the flashbacks to her past start showing up more. As a result, this otherwise “useless” change to Sirenetta’s character design helps the viewer figure out whether the events shown are happening in the present or the past and not get confused. There were a couple times where I was like “Wait, why is Sirenetta here? I thought she was- oh wait her hair is all green, this is a flashback, nevermind.” In a show that relies so heavily on flashbacks, this was a very good move to make.
My favorite scene from the show has to be when Hans (our dear sweet love interest) takes Sirenetta on a tour of the town, ending up in a hibiscus garden. He explains that while it might seem a little plain to most people- the town IS called Hibiscus Cove after all- it’s a place that means a lot to him and he just wanted to show her. For Nettie though, this place is perfect. While it’s not stated explicitly, this scene gives an example of why she came to the surface to start with, and renews her desire to fight for her freedom. The hibiscus grove is everything she never would have gotten to see if she had just obeyed her father and stayed home- but by following her dreams and sticking to her guns, she was able to see this beautiful place. (And meet a very nice and dare she say attractive young man.)
Sirenetta’s plot, characters, and message are great as well. While the events move quickly and the “Yer a mermaid, Nettie.” plot twist is dropped really early in, that makes sense as the show is rather short. It’s not rushing, it’s avoiding wasting time. Despite the small number of episodes however, the plot threads are actually quite slowly revealed, but not in a way that’s frustrating. While Sirenetta is busy battling the forces of evil, moving the plot forward, and learning about her history in the present, the viewers get flashbacks to her past in each episode, slowly getting drip-fed her motivations and what lead Sirenetta to end up where she is now.
To build on that, the characters feel realistic too. When Iris’s friend is washed out to sea, instead of standing around or trying to swim after her or something silly like that, her actions reflect an upbringing of someone that would have been raised around the ocean and the threat of riptides- she immediately goes to find a lifeguard. The main villain, Mostrega, also makes intelligent, logical decisions based on the currently available information. While I don’t want to spoil TOO much here, she definitely stays two steps ahead of the protagonists at all times, and likely would have gotten exactly what she wanted if Sirenetta and Calypso were but a moment slower.
Speaking of Mostrega and her beef with Sirenetta and her family, it’s nice to see a “moral of the story” that ties in so well with the main conflict. I feel like it’s very hard to pull off a “Be yourself!” sort of message in a story, as that often doesn’t really say much and there’s a lot of situations in life where “just being yourself!” isn’t actually the right thing to do. That being said, the context and the motivations of the different characters makes that fact clear. This show spells that negative out and clarifies its message by using the villain instead of having her be nothing but a strict antagonist. Mostrega’s argument is that, in carrying out her villainous ways, she’s also just "being herself", and that if she’s evil, then Sirenetta is just as selfish for leaving her family. Sirenetta’s goal isn’t so simple as “being herself”- her father was forcing her into marriage and depriving her of her birthright as a mermaid- getting to spend one night visiting the surface world. He does this while expecting her to believe that it's the best thing for her and that she should be happy to receive "the gift of safety". Sirenetta’s goal wasn’t to screw anyone else over (as Mostrega claims), it was to set reasonable boundaries with her family and live life on her own terms. This is a completely valid desire for an adult woman- which she is. (It should be noted that the forced marriage isn’t a quirk of being mermaid royalty either. Her older sisters were shown to be quite uncomfortable with it, and her grandmother wasn’t informed and was very upset on her behalf.)
As a result, the struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist feels a lot deeper than it would have been otherwise. Instead of just being a silly fight between a mermaid princess and a sea witch, it’s a legitimate conflict between two debatable points of view on a topic. Is it okay to “be you” if it’s hurting someone? What are the limits on it? What does being yourself really mean anyway? Sirenetta’s final victory (This isn’t a spoiler, right? We can just assume that the mermaid princess in a mermaid princess show wins?) over Mostrega is not only a victory for her and her kingdom, it’s the victory of her point of view and hammers in the message of the story.
Overall, Sirenetta is a cartoon aimed at kids but has a surprisingly well articulated message tucked away in its fun songs, pretty character designs, and well paced plot. It’s not alone though- Mattimation has produced several other shows such as 5683 and SexXy Save the World, and the new Tiny Siren Animation production company has finished two sequels to Sirenetta- Sirenetta and the Second Star and the short film Sirenetta’s Family Dinner. Amazingly, Sirenetta is one of the few independent animations out there that have made it pretty big! Sirenetta and the Second Star has proven quite successful, and can be watched on Amazon Video, AppleTV, and Google Play. (In fact, I actually watched Sirenetta and the Second Star on Amazon Prime before I watched Sirenetta on YouTube. Probably not the best idea to watch it out of order, but whatever.) Obviously, Sirenetta’s success is a pretty big deal. It’s rare for independent animation to see any level of achievement on this scale, and whether you’re a fan of magical girls and romance or high octane fights and explosions in animation, we can all appreciate and encourage an animator who is genuinely living the dream.
Audience: Despite the characters being adults, this show is absolutely for kids. Tiny Siren Animation is an animation studio who’s audience is firmly stated to be children. That being said, adults can still enjoy the show for what it is! Just because it’s made for children doesn’t mean the writing and plot isn’t well done.
Inclusion: B+. Not as good as Sirenetta and the Second Star (which I will get around to reviewing eventually), but still pretty good. The show is never lacking for female characters and the strong bonds between them. I think everyone would want to have a grandmother like Sirenetta’s! Furthermore, the 15 nereid sisters- “sea sprites that keep the ocean in balance”- are obviously important and powerful in the show’s canon, and are all black women. It’s legitimately nice to see POC in positions of respect in shows, especially women. The nereids importance can’t be understated either- after all, it was a nereid that granted Sirenetta’s wish and kicked off the plot to start with! On a more unfortunate note though, the show doesn’t have captions, which can make things difficult for hard of hearing viewers.
Best Quality: Definitely the plot and message! I know I raved about it in the review above, but it was honestly refreshing to see a protagonist in an otherwise cutesy show get the downsides of her motivation called out and debated. It’s abundantly clear that Mattimation really thought about the central message first and constructed the plot around it. Well done!
Favorite Character: It’s gotta be Sirenetta, though Mostrega and the nereids are close behind. In a lot of shows with extensive magic and worldbuilding, the main characters are relegated to an “audience viewpoint” position. They're put in a place in the writing where they need to have the lore of the world explained to them so the audience can learn about it as well. Sirenetta does suffer from this slightly- her memories are wiped at the start of the show, so she has to relearn everything about her powers and the mermaid kingdom as she goes, conveniently allowing the audience to learn these things too. However, she isn’t just a cardboard cutout of the viewers. She has her own defined motivations, desires, and goals, and drives the plot as much as she’s a victim of it. As a result, her personality feels a lot more defined and interesting than most of the cast.