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It’s January, that magical, cursed time of year when studios quietly dump their mistakes into theaters while audiences with better sense than I catch up on award season hopefuls like The Power of the Dog (on Netflix!) and Annette (on Amazon Prime!), or if they’re feeling adventurous, track down rental copies of The Novice or El Planeta

Gravitas Ventures is no ordinary video on demand (VOD) distributor, opting to ambitiously, bafflingly, release the long-shelved The King’s Daughter into over 2,100 screens in hopes of increasing its home release viability and longevity. But the fairly robust number of multiplexes you can theoretically watch The King’s Daughter in is just the tip of the iceberg.

Beneath that iceberg? Mermaids.

The year was 1999, with Bill Clinton mired in scandal, when Jim Henson Pictures obtained the film rights to Vonda N. McIntyre’s alternate history/romance fantasy novel The Moon and the Sun. Disney acquired the rights in 2001, but the adaptation sat in purgatory until 2014, when various Chinese film companies, most notably Kylin Films, invested over $20 million into the project. Paramount Pictures, now also somehow involved, announced a release date of April 10, 2015. But just three weeks before its release, they postponed it to an unspecified time (allegedly to fine-tune the effects work).

Seven long, Trump-era years later, The King’s Daughter has arrived in a world very different from the one that birthed it. 

It’s 17th century France, and the womanizing, assassination-attempt-surviving King Louis XIV (Pierce Brosnan, ham-tastic) commissions the capture of a mermaid in the hope that eating/dissecting/sacrificing the mythical being will grant him immortality. Meanwhile, the king’s illegitimate, titular daughter, Marie-Josèphe (Kaya Scodelario), is summoned from her seaside nunnery to court for… reasons. I haven’t read the source material, but from what I gather Marie-Josèphe is positioned as a lady-in-waiting to the king’s niece and assistant to natural philosopher/brother Yves de la Croix (Benjamin Walker in the film).

No matter. Marie-Josèphe plays a mean cello, and one night is lured by the whale-like song of a captive, nameless mermaid—a computerized Fan Bingbing, dwelling at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley. The ensuing drama hinges on Marie-Josèphe’s attempt to liberate the mermaid with the help of priest Père La Chaise (William Hurt), à la E.T./Free Willy/Okja/The Shape of Water. Though to be fair, The King’s Daughter technically predates those last two, so really, who’s the real cliché here, I ask you.

The movie spends an inordinate amount of time debating the moral/theological ramifications of mermaid slaughter, La Chaise imploring that, as intelligent beings, mermaids deserve the same right to live as humans. Just like the real La Chaise. At one point Marie-Josèphe is under the mistaken impression that Louis plans to harmlessly use the mermaid’s gifts to the benefit of the entire French nation, suggesting a potentially darker moral quandary for Marie-Josèphe to wrestle. But like her cello, nothing comes of that, either. Maybe in 20 years, we’ll get one of those Blade Runner DVD sets with an endless supply of alternate versions of The King’s Daughter

I’m curious what the Henson puppeteers would have done with this material. Fan Bingbing, one of the most famous actresses in China, spends the runtime mute and unrecognizable behind incredibly distracting CGI face distortion. At the risk of donning a tinfoil hat, I wonder whether Bingbing’s presumed disappearance and subsequent tax evasion scandal in 2018 had anything to do with it. Such are the mysteries of the January release. Is it bad because of poor aesthetic choices, or is it because of the myriad extratextual components that can impact what we eventually see in those 2,000-plus screens?

Under even the best conditions, the process a novel undergoes from page to screen is one big meat grinder, and time has ground whatever The King’s Daughter might have been to a fine, flavorless paste. May it grant us eternal life.

The King’s Daughter (2022)

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPA Rating: PG

Streaming: TBA (currently in theaters)

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....