Beauty & The Beast plus Splash plus The Little Mermaid plus E.T. plus Singin’ in the Rain plus The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Pause to do the cinematic calculations in your head. Time’s up. The answer is The Shape of Water, a film from that borrows heavily from several classics yet manages to be a rather whimsical and beguiling wonder.
Very few directors could pull off that tricky combination. The great Guillermo Del Toro, who’s made gorgeous and wildly innovative monster mashups such as Hellboy, Crimson Peak and Pan’s Labyrinth, is an exception. He’s helmed a simple star-crossed love affair that also serves as a love affair for the medium that shaped him as a filmmaker. In a movie flush with gorgeous imagery, the most resonant is the one in which an anguished water creature stands inside a dark movie theater, staring straight ahead and clearly basking at the flickering light on the big screen.
I promise that scene makes sense in the context of the story. In Baltimore 1962 during the height of Cold War paranoia, a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins, an Oscar nominee for Blue Jasmine) works as a nighttime janitor in a top-secret government facility. Her super-chatty coworker Zelda (the always-reliable Octavia Spencer) fills her ears during the downtime. One night, a colonel (Michael Shannon) and a few cohorts wheel in a fishman (Doug Jones) plucked from the Amazon. Dubbed “The Asset,” he is stuck in level-five captivity. He’s trapped in solitude in a tank of water and regularly poked and prodded. When Elisa peers into the tank, the torture stops. It’s love at first sight.
Elisa is fascinated by this. . . well, man isn’t quite right. The striking creature has ruffled gills, muscles and mournful green eyes. He bears a passing resemblance to the alien in Independence Day, if the alien had a soul. Elisa and the monster can’t talk to each other or speak each other’s language, but so what? That’s the point. The two have a special kinship, and they both understand the big picture. Elisa believes this fellow outsider is her soul mate. They must be together. They must be free.
Alas, anyone who’s ever seen a monster movie knows that when human develops feelings for a creature, heartbreak will occur. Think King Kong (not Skull Island!) and the movies listed in the first sentence of this review. Though some “monsters” have big hearts, they lack the skills to adapt to our world. You could mop the floor with all the tears that have been shed over the years due to this inevitable discovery.
In The Shape of Water, the obstacle is the cruel colonel who taunts The Asset and wants to kill it. Shannon can do this type of mustache-twirling with this eyes closed, which is not ideal for the villain role. The casting is too on-the-nose. Though a commanding actor, he’s cartoonish here and his character doesn’t seem credible. Other bad guys come off as stock shadowy goons. The creature is already a literal fish out of water, must he also face Russian secret agents? Not even the presence of the great, versatile Michael Stuhlbarg can make this subplot work.
When The Shape of Water premiered at the erudite film festivals earlier this fall, critics and audiences were rapturous in their applause for the fantastical fairy tale. Awards nominations are coming soon. In the chillier light of day, I must admit the film nearly drowns in its own quirkiness. Del Toro gets awfully cute with some out-of-nowhere tap dancing. He also invents a new genre: cross-species erotic porn! Look, straight-laced Elisa has every right to healthy libido. Still. “Show don’t tell” isn’t always a fool-proof narrative device.
Nonetheless, there’s enough dreaminess here to smooth out the edges. The Shape of Water is as hypnotic as the ripples in the ocean, right to the final breathtaking image. And, most important, the connection between beauty and beast is magical. See it more than once to believe it.
(The Shape of Water is in now playing in New York City and expands on Friday, December 8)
Also published on Medium.