On December 22nd, the latest film by Guillermo Del Toro will open everywhere. Entitled The Shape of Water, the movie unfolds a story seemingly pulled straight out of ancient times. It evokes an age of storytelling in which mythological creatures went hand in hand with people. However, it is delivered to audiences in a comparatively modern world. Perhaps it is this perceived incongruousness that has lead some people to be perplexed by the film. Even so, Del Toro’s latest venture already boasts a wide array of awards and nominations. It would seem - not for the first time - the director’s work has a polarizing impact on audiences.
Set in 1962 America, The Shape of Water follows a woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) through her day-to-day. She is part of the cleaning crew at a secret government laboratory. Our heroine is mute and appears to go through life with only a couple friends. One such friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is with her when they stumble upon a creature being studied at the facility. If you have seen the poster or trailer, you already have a sense of what develops.
Another beautiful creature from del Toro
As audiences have come to expect from Del Toro, the creature design is on point. While not revolutionary in profile or overall feel, the details and expressions bring the character to life. Of course, including an aquatic being among the leads in a serious film comes with some high-risk factors. To their credit, it seems the creators chose to lean into this over-the-top tendency, rather than deny it. The entire production took on a 60s feel, with what one would usually describe as slight over-acting and perhaps overly defined character profiles. However, in the landscape of this world, it fits well. The color palettes and cinematography were well-chosen and beautifully executed. Even they took on a vintage tone, despite the use of modern technique. Overall, this picture was visually grounded in real life and yet somehow entirely apart from it.
The cast all turned in strong performances, seemingly embracing the affected world they became a part of. While the story did not come across as “believable,” it seems clear that was not the point. The Shape of Water is a distant echo from tales in which the lines around humanity were perhaps blurrier than they are today. Back then, sirens, nymphs and centaurs were said to walk the earth and consort with people. This film takes on a similar air - asking audiences to suspend their idea of what makes a creature human enough to walk among us.
Breaking the flow
The one moment that disrupts the flow in The Shape of Water comes in the form of a musical break. The rest of this picture manages to proceed in earnest while avoiding taking itself too seriously. However, this aside took things one step too far (think Christina Ricci tap break in Buffalo 66) into the absurd. Thankfully it does not take the film long to slide back on track.
Audiences looking for a visually interesting film, with an unusual - by modern standards - story are sure to enjoy this movie. However, those who want to keep their mermaids animated and their heroes in chiton will likely be perplexed, or even put off, by The Shape of Water. In either case, dinner conversation afterward is such to be interesting.