“Adult fairy tale” is one of those suspicious terms often used to give more credit to a silly premise than it deserves — but every now and then, it’s actually used to defend a fantastical movie stuffy mainstream adults would likely dismiss otherwise, like 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
That triple Oscar-winner was directed by jack-of-all-trades Guillermo del Toro. It was the most powerful filtering of del Toro’s visions of an already-storied career. After a Hellboy sequel, Pacific Rim, and Crimson Peak, del Toro has now returned to that unnerving space between genres, crafting another adult fairy tale that reaches out to childhood emotions within audiences while still incorporating severed fingers and a dead cat.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor who works the night shift at a secret government facility in the early ’60s alongside her longtime friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Other than Zelda, Elisa’s only contact is with her reclusive artist neighbour across the hall, Giles (Richard Jenkins).
One night, an amphibious, humanoid creature (Doug Jones) is delivered to the lab, where Elisa forms a secret, tentative kinship with him. She begins sneaking him eggs and teaching him ASL, and that friendship blossoms into something deeper.
This would all lead to a happily-ever-after but for one man: Colonel Robert Strickland (Michael Shannon), an unhinged go-getter who caught the creature in South America himself at great personal cost, with a blood vendetta against the Aquaman as a result.
When Strickland orders the creature to be killed and dissected (as villainous character keeping a one-of-a-kind creature hostage are wont to do), Elisa decides to put a plan into place and take action, in the name of hope and love. Of course, she’ll need a little help from her friends.
Hawkins is just fantastic as Elisa, conveying so much with her hyper-expressive face without uttering a syllable. Just as good is Shannon, who can play these kind of roles in his sleep but still gives his all to make Strickland more than just a slimy military cliché or a comical villain. And due credit need also go to Jones, for pulling off the same job as Hawkins but beneath pounds of prosthetics and makeup.
Del Toro movies, whether successes or failures, always have a distinctly crafted look, and The Shape of Water is no different. Draped in wet greens and blacks, the movie gives you the feeling of being underwater, as if all the story were being experienced in a leaky lab beneath the ocean. It’s a claustrophobic feeling with the needed levity coming from Hawkins, Spencer, and Shannon’s increasingly unhinged colonel.
So much of The Shape of Water works so well, it’s notably disappointing when one or two parts don’t. In particular, the third act hews closer to a certain whale-liberating movie than Beauty and the Beast or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, ditching the aquatic love story for extended heist and chase sequences that feel lazy after the hard work put into the first two-thirds of the film.
While not every step is takes is a perfectly placed one, though, the boldness of del Toro’s imagination and the visual splendour with which he’s brought his fable to R-rated life is undeniably one of the most committed visions to hit the screen in 2017. Quite the accomplishment for an “adult fairy tale.”