A top secret government facility. A pretty, mute janitor. And the mysterious merman who proves to be more than just a kindred spirit. All of this and more comes together for one the most beautiful, dark fairy tales you’ll ever see…in The Shape of Water.
UNIVERSAL BY WAY OF DISNEY
Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water is a gorgeous, captivating movie that, while not necessarily his best story, is very easily his best production to date.
The film is simply beautiful to look at. The set design, the costumes. The color pallet. The haunting, moody lighting. Everything seamlessly shifts to accentuate whatever emotion a scene requires, from lonely to passionate; cold to warm; hopeless to hopeful.
For example, Elisa Esposito, the lonely, mute janitor played by the absolutely charming Sally Hawkins, lives in a rundown, sparsely furnished apartment above a noisy, struggling movie theater. For much of the movie, it’s dark, cold, and dusty. The wallpaper is peeled and torn. The roof leaks in the rain. It feels eternally lonely. But her neighbor, Giles (played here by Richard Jenkins), lives next door in an always warm, sunlit apartment filled with furniture and decorations. It’s inviting and lived-in. It’s a home.
The music and sound design are just as lovely, fluid, and pin-point accurate, and all while never failing to be subtle.
The casting is practically flawless. Aside from a few, though not glaring exceptions, nearly every performance is charming and memorable. Hawkins is silent for much of the movie, but her facial expressions and body language are big, sweeping gestures when they need to be, while also delicate and subtle when the camera is pulled close. Jenkins, meanwhile, is every friend we wish we had. Doug Jones brings humanity to a wholly inhuman entity despite an utter lack of dialog or human facial expressions. And Michael Shannon is easily the most human Disney villain despite this not being a Disney production.
DOES THIS SMELL FISHY TO YOU?
If there’s any issue to be found in The Shape of Water, it would be how the movie is about as deep as the movies that inspired it. This is a movie heavily influenced not only by Universal’s classic line of monster movies, but also Disney’s classic animated fairy tales. Every character gets just the right amount of screentime, depth, and growth the movie requires of them. But the story itself isn’t much deeper than a typical fairy tale. The characters are largely restricted to fixed, key roles that never diverge from expectation. And as a result, the central love story doesn’t net a lot of attention. It’s the same sort of puppy-dog affection depicted in classic stories like Romeo and Juliet. There’s more context and work put into the ambiance surrounding it rather than portraying anything close to a realistic or meaningful relationship. It’s a cute, whimsical love affair for sure. And it works in the context of the film. But del Toro does ask the audience to accept more than a small leap in logic in order to rationalize a silent, expedited human-merfolk romance. If you thought the romance in Disney’s The Little Mermaid was underdeveloped, Shape of Water is somehow even more so.
But again, in the context of what the movie is, this is the best of whatever sort of movie The Shape of Water set out to be. If the goal was to create a hauntingly beautiful fairy tale about loneliness and affection, then del Toro and company succeeded in every conceivable fashion. There is no wasted effort. No wasted dialog or moments or scenes. No unnecessary plot threads or characters. Everything hits the right notes with the right timing. The execution is as flawless as they come.
If you’re looking for something with a bit more depth to its characters, romance, and story, then The Shape of Water might leave you wanting to a fair degree. But if beautiful filmmaking blended with a touching story and charming characters is what you’re looking, then I highly suggest you CHILL with The Shape of Water.