Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water

Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017) *Del Toro Returns to Fairy Tales*

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water
Most people think fairy tales are for children, and maybe they are in modern times but that was never their intent.  Fairy tales, the Grimm kind, were morality plays full of fear, violence, and horror.  Guillermo del Toro started his career making these kinds of fairy tales with his early films like Chronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and his masterpiece: Pan’s Labyrinth (even the Hellboy films have elements of fairy tale storytelling to them).  The Shape of Water is del Toro’s return to this style of storytelling after a decade, and he’s been showered with critical acclaim.  However, despite being a technically perfectly made motion picture, The Shape of Water is no Pan, and lacks the storytelling magic del Toro usually brings to a film.
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water takes place during the Kennedy administration, at the height of The Cold War, and is a love story that takes place in a secret government research facility between a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) and a mysterious creature (Doug Jones).  The creature looks like a cross between Abe Sapien and The Creature from The Black Lagoon, and one of the major problems in the film for me is that the love story felt forced without any other foundation to it other than the two characters are both outsiders.  The story is fairly predictable, linear, and didn’t connect with me.  I didn’t care about either character (the creature especially is never given enough humanity that he’s relatable), so their trials and travails didn’t particularly move me.

Shape

The other problem with the film’s story is that it contains some extremely graphic material that doesn’t seem at all necessary for the plot or conducive to the romanticized love story tone that del Toro is otherwise trying to build throughout the film.  I have a really high tolerance for pretty much anything, so if I start to feel awkward watching something in a theater, del Toro has probably gone off the weird reservation (yes, I realize criticizing weirdness in a del Toro film is a bit like criticizing language in a Scorcese film, but there were things that I can’t even describe here without making this a red band review).  That the script doesn’t rise to the level of every other aspect of filmmaking in The Shape of Water is a crying shame, because every other aspect is flawless.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water

The film has a really great ensemble with some of my favorite character actors in Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins (the latter two receiving Oscar nominations for their work).  This is Sally Hawkins’ film though.  Despite barely speaking the entire movie, she has to carry the entire movie, do most of the creature’s character development (such that exists) and she does a lovely job (during the parts that aren’t bordering on super creepy).

Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water

I think del Toro will win Best Director for the film, and whatever criticisms I have, this shows a mastery of direction that surpasses any other film he’s made.  The 13 Oscar nominations pervade every aspect of film making, and they’re mostly deserved.  Production design, score, costumes, visual effects, and OH MY GOODNESS cinematography are all gorgeous.  It’s a brilliantly constructed film, and makes cinematography a legit three-way tie in my mind with Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049.  The early 1960s are perfectly captured.  It’s true to time and place.  It really is a lovely film when it doesn’t get in its own way.

Guillermo del Toro in The Shape of Water
Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, Director/Writer/Producer Guillermo del Torro and David Hewlett on the set of THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

I wish The Shape of Water had the subtlety, character development, or cleverness of Pan’s plot, and that del Toro had found a way to make this love story actually work instead of making a flawless framework for a film that doesn’t quite live up to it.  I’m hugely impressed by del Toro’s craft.  But I’d by lying if I said I ever planned on rewatching his effort.

8.0/10

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11 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017) *Del Toro Returns to Fairy Tales*”

  1. Yeah, I watched it and found …something … missing. I think you’ve answered that for me. All it would’ve taken (in my ‘umble opinion as a never-directed-anything-in-my-life expert) is a few subtle gestures, here and there, to get me engaged with fish-bloke and the budding romance.
    Gestures, because this was a film that was basted on the actions of the characters, not their spoken words, although there were some great bits of dialogue as well.
    I reckon it will bring home a few Oscar gongs, but as a performance piece, I wish it could’ve been more.

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    1. I mean, we never really got anything endearing or positive out of him aside from regrowing Richard Jenkins’ hair AFTER he ate his cat (which Jenkis took way too well). That they were both different wasn’t enough for me to justify what she went through to save him or see them as star crossed lovers.

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      1. The film implied that she was mute because of childhood abuse, so perhaps she was immediatley empathetic towards the creature getting tortured with the cattle prod by the authoritarian bastard. You have to use your imagination a little, but the psychology is there. She either had no hope of connecting with anyone in the time and place where she lived, or she felt that way, and a miricle fell out of the sky for her, or she chose to accept it as a miricle, which amounts to the same thing. She knew what it was like to not be able to communicate with the people around her, and she was able to offer the creature sign language. Maybe she liked being a savior, after a lifetime of wishing about being saved. Love happens, and even if the reasons for love do not seem judicious at the time, when you are dreaming about dancing with your beloved in a Bugsby Berkeley musical, you have got it bad.

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      2. I got her reasons, but they didn’t give enough to the creature to make you feel much for him aside from pity. He needed moments to endear him and all he got was regrowing Richard Jenkins’ hair after he ate his cat (which Jenkins took way way too well)

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      3. Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting for that part since I was eight. Usually when a misunderstand monster does something like that, they send in bombers and drop him off a skyscraper.

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  2. In a film about accepting the Other as we accept ourselves, the Other remains a traditional monster, shrouded in almost total mystery. That is the big problem with this movie.

    I thought it was fantastic though. Perfectly designed, sweet, yet with a villain who scares the bejezus out of you and really propels the plot. Without that guy, a whimsical fairy tale like this, that strings together so many genres, might have meandered, seemed directionless. The violence was not gratuitous, it was a miscalculation at worst. I gurentee that GDT was thinking that the villain had to be THAT evil, to hammer home the pointlessness, stupidity, and evil of having a problem with two benign souls harmlessly finding each other, just because they’re different from each other.

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    1. It wasn’t so much the violence I was referring to. I can admire the craft without loving the film, which is why it still got a good score, just not a Best Picture score. Of the nominees, I only need to see Lady Bird and so far only Three Billboards, Get Out, or Dunkirk are worthy.

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      1. I did not see Phantom Thread, I meant the disturbing and unnecessarily graphic portions of Shape weren’t so much the violence as they were the weird random sex acts and total nudity. Also biting the head off the cat with no consequence was ridiculous and absurd. I don’t care how nice you are, if someone eats your pet’s head, you’re going to be pissed.

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      2. Dave, as someone who still has not gotten over the death of his golden retriever from twenty years ago, I can safely say that I would never have forgiven anyone who killed him, misunderstood monster or not. Shape of Water has an inelegant, agenda driven script that hits you over the head. And yet despite all that I was utterly transported. I can forgive a lot, if a film is this heartfelt.

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