Do adults really need need fairy tales? As evidenced by the popularity of shows such as Once Upon a Time, its obvious that many of us do. However, most of what we get as “adult fairy tales” are familiar children’s stories retold with a more mature narrative. Thankfully, for all of us fairy tale lovers who long for something completely different, we have Guillermo del Toro, the modern cinematic master of the genre. While he does dapple in other genres such as comic book films (The Hellboy series and Blade II), gothic romance (Crimson Peak), or even sci-fi (Pacific Rim), all of them contain beautiful visuals and whimsically conveyed narrative. It is evident, though, with the brilliance of Pan’s Labyrinth that del Toro shines the brightest with the dark fairytale genre. Once again, del Toro gives us an original modern adult fantasy with The Shape of Water. But can it possibly give as much satisfaction as Pan’s Labyrinth?
The Shape of Water follows the tale of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a janitor in a top secret government research facility in 1962 Baltimore. When a new subject, an intelligent, fish-like man dubbed “The Asset” (Doug Jones) is transferred to the facility, Elisa quickly befriends him. Bonding over their inability to communicate with others, loneliness, and mistreatment by society, Elisa formulates a plan to set The Asset free. Unfortunately, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) the man in charge of The Asset, is a truly monstrous individual who has no intentions of ever setting the amphibious man free. The cast also features Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s coworker Zelda, and Richard Jenkins as Giles, Elisa’s closeted gay neighbor. The entire cast’s performance was definitely impressive. But I must give a special shout out to Doug Jones who is the industries’ leading master at physical acting and playing non-human creatures. Although it is somewhat amusing that before this, he played Abe Sapian (a similar amphibious fish-man) in the Hellboy series. I really wish that special effects and motion-capture actors could get more recognition.
As to be expected from any del Toro venture, this film is stunning to look at. From the steampunk-esque color palettes, to the expertly executed practical special effects and makeup, The Shape of Water certainly made my eyes happy. And though I can’t say for sure because I wasn’t there at the time, but everything looked and felt authentically cold-war era U.S. You really get the feeling that this was an era longing to advance technologically, yet stubbornly refusing to let go of antiquated social norms.
Thankfully, this film has just as much substance as it does style. I will be the first to admit, the story is not that unfamiliar. Its sort of reminiscent of a reverse gender Splash crossed with a romantic Free Willy and Creature from the Black Lagoon (but with consent.) The thing is, despite it being a familiar story, del Toro makes the boldest choices possible in telling it. This film is unapologeticly mature, despite its elements of whimsy. Uncomfortable subjects such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and yes, even inter-species romance are addressed. With the strong theme of isolation and hiding one’s true self from a conformist society, this strong treatment of the subject matter was very much necessary. One of my favorite things about del Toro as a director (besides his visual style) is his sharp juxtaposition of light and heavy narrative. This film may be the best example of it yet.
I can say that on a technical level, The Shape of Water may arguably be Del Toro’s Magnum Opus. I have to warn everyone, though, that it may not be as universally enjoyable as other adult fairy tales, (even Pan’s Labyrinth) due to the boldness of the choices del Toro made. However, if you are truly longing to escape reality for a while in the theaters and aren’t afraid of the unfamiliar, definitely check it out.