The Shape of Water reimagines the fairy tale of The Frog Prince, only instead of the frog turning into a handsome prince upon receiving a kiss from the princess, the princess and the frog remain as their respective species and have sex a lot. It might sound alarming or crude to refer to the story in this way, but I found The Shape of Water to be this blunt and off-putting with its tale of forbidden romance. I recognize that thoughtful critics and audiences have found this film to be beautiful and affecting, but I felt distanced by its story from the opening scenes. Imagine the magic realism, lush production design, charming soundtrack, and all-around wonder of Amelie, only instead of galavanting around a bright golden-hued Paris, Amelie repeatedly feeds eggs to and makes out with a merman in dank cerulean-hued Baltimore.
Despite my critiques, there’s a lot to like about this film. Guillermo del Toro is a deep lover of all that is cinema, and he speaks the language with rich, poetic flourishes. I appreciate del Toro’s fascination with the macabre and the fantastical, and his artistic sentiments are laudable. But for all the imaginative elements in his films, there’s also something quite obvious to his allegories. Even with the bizarre creatures and vibrant environments, films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Crimson Peak are familiar myths whose only major surprises are in the graphic violence, something del Toro seems to relish. With The Shape of Water, it’s the classic (read: already-been-done) story about two outsiders defying the system with their love. For whatever reason, it’s the choice genre for del Toro; fairy tale allegories are meant to be overt and illustrative, with characters serving more as substitutes and ciphers for the author’s ideas, writ large to make sure that the audience really *gets it.* This in-your-face didactic function can be off-putting even as it remains familiar and conventional. We’ve all seen this story before; this is a love story as manufactured by someone whose only knowledge of romantic love comes from what they learned in classic Hollywood movies. The joy here should be in experiencing the world-building and the unique characters within the familiar story. Yet those elements suffer here due to muddled storytelling, tonal uncertainty, and inconsistent tempo in pacing.
Still, the performances are worth celebrating. Sally Hawkins is marvelous as the mute Elisa, a cleaning woman for a large government research facility and the princess in this 1950s-era fairy tale. She communicates so much with facial expressions and posture; her eyes alone could serve as her voice here. Yet Richard Jenkins’ sympathetic gay neighbor might be the most affecting in the cast, serving as narrator and fellow lonely soul as he and Elisa watch the world go by from their apartments above a cinema. Octavia Spencer plays the only role Octavia Spencer seems allowed to play any more: the supportive, sassy friend with spirit. Michael Shannon is a gratuitously-religious villain, an all-American family man with a penchant for wanton violence and peeing without using his hands. And del Toro regular Doug Jones should be praised for his performance as the unnamed merman; the man has a gift for imbuing the spindly and strange with a sense of pathos. While they’re being given Oscar nominations and accolades, each of these actors has been better in other, similar roles. If Hawkins wins Best Actress, I’ll simply count it as a decade-late award for her perfect performance as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Along with the performances, the production design, makeup, and soundtrack are all exquisite. Thus, The Shape of Water is a film I can respect and recognize for its cinematic merits, even as I didn’t find this iteration of a familiar myth very effective or affecting. Maybe you’ll love this frog prince more than I did.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5580390/