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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.