"The Shape of Water" is an excellent fairytale
You might not know it by looking at box office receipts, but 2017 has been a pretty solid year for movies. It has specifically carved out an interesting niche for meta-commentaries. If “The Last Jedi” refers to the burning down of its own legacy, “The Shape of Water” coaxes audiences to be satisfied for what it is rather than what it isn’t.
Lest that sound like an excuse; let me assure you that it is wonderful. Guillermo Del Toro makes his living on crafting perfect worlds. Nobody makes a better looking set than Del Toro. At least, I haven’t encountered a movie with a more eye-catching one. From “Crimson Peak” to “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Del Toro makes up for whatever else his stories lack with sheer eye candy.
“Shape of Water” may be his most complete story to date, albeit a familiar one. “He sees me for who I am,” is signed by Sally Hawkins’ Elisa. “He doesn’t see what I lack, or that I am incomplete.” That’s the very core of the movie, and it’s moving, even if it isn’t breaking new ground in 2017.
None of the characters feel fully fleshed out, which should sound familiar if you’re a regular consumer of Del Toro’s craft. They feel ghostly, which makes sense when dealing with a master of fairytales. That’s what this is. You must make a choice when sitting down for a two-hour, adult fairytale: either you’re going to buy into Del Toro’s craft, or you aren't.
In the case of “The Shape of Water,” Del Toro makes it much easier to buy. The humor on full display helps, as Octavia Spencer delights every time she’s on screen. Her performance is nothing short of electric, playing off Hawkins, the setting (a secret government lab in Baltimore!) and the situation (severed fingers!) to help lighten what is ostensibly a dark fairytale.
Michael Shannon leans into the material, too, as a one-note force of evil. It’s not quite the turn that earned him acclaim in “Nocturnal Animals,” but he thrills as a man at the end of his rope. He’s excellent against a just-doing-his-best scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg). And all that’s without even mentioning Richard Jenkins. This film has a great cast.
It’s a good thing, too, because what it doesn’t have is a great story, really. Most of the film moves relatively predictably. Like a body of water itself, it flows with the current in a manner you’d expect. Elisa meets the monster, bonds with the monster without much explainable chemistry and so on and so forth. You’ll need to suspend a little bit of disbelief for all of this to work, but it’s a movie. I’m sure you can get there.
That the story is familiar, the characters not given much depth, or that we aren’t forced to really question what it means to be Human are not in themselves fatal flaws. Hell, even altogether these don’t kill “The Shape of Water.” But these things add up to keep the film from moving past being a very good film into becoming a great one. It’s the dreamy sort of movie Del Toro is known for making. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as usual, it leaves me wishing there was something more.