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Guillermo Del Toro Returns To Form With ‘The Shape Of Water’

A fairy tale for monster lovers

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Elise (Sally Hawkins), a cleaning woman at a top secret facility, falls in love with specimen (played by Doug Jones) being experimented on by the government in "The Shape of Water."

Companion viewing

"The Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954)

"Cronos" (1993)

"The Devil's Backbone" (2001)

The Shape of Water” just garnered 14 Broadcast Film Critic nominations, and this weekend you can finally enjoy the film for yourself.

OK. I have to confess that recently, I have been a bit mad at Guillermo del Toro. Let me explain.

Life altering experience

I first met Mexican director Guillermo del Toro in 1994 after he had made “Cronos.” When I interviewed him for the San Diego Latino Film Festival he recounted a story about a life-altering experience he had when he was four years old. After watching an episode of “The Outer Limits,” Del Toro's brother dressed up like the bug-eyed monster from the TV show to scare his younger sibling. "Then," the adult Del Toro told me, "I woke up and had an urgent need to pee. I looked around and saw monsters everywhere. There was this fluffy carpet, and I thought every single strand of the carpet was a finger, and in the closet, I saw a big monster. I was so scared that I resigned myself to pee in the bed. That happened almost every night for a couple of weeks, and my mother said ‘If you pee in your bed again, I'm gonna really give you a good one.' That night I woke up and wanted to go to the bathroom so I spoke to the monsters in the room, and I said that if you let me pee, I will be your friend forever.' They allowed me and here I am peeing happily and making monster movies."

Del Toro made good on his pact with the monsters in his room with his first films. In “Cronos,” he turns a vampire into a Christ figure. In “Mimic,” he shows that the giant bugs threatening humanity are just trying to keep their species alive. In “The Devil's Backbone” he sympathizes with a ghost, and in “Blade 2”, he shows compassion for the brooding, day-walking vampire superhero. This sense of empathy for the monster continued with his “Hellboy” films and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Taking the monster's side gave Del Toro's films a unique perspective.

But I felt a sense of betrayal in “Pacific Rim” where he seemed to side with the humans and their machines rather than the creatures (called "kaiju" but really just cloned monsters with no personality). And that sense of frustration also colored by feelings about “Crimson Peak,” a gorgeous-looking ghost tale that displayed little compassion for its otherworldly beings.

Back on the side of the monsters

But with “The Shape of Water,” Del Toro has returned to the side of the monsters, and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief and go back to wholeheartedly embracing his films. With “The Shape of Water,” he returns to fine form by delivering a fairy tale for everyone who thought Fay Wray should have ended up with King Kong, and more specifically that Julie Adams should have paired up with the Gill Man.

With homages to “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Del Toro and actor Doug Jones bring an amphibious man to life. Then they let him fall in love with Sally Hawkins’ mute princess. She's a cleaning lady named Elisa who works at a top-secret facility where the government is keeping the amphibious creature for study. The film finds beauty and romance but without turning a blind eye to the ugliness the world can serve up. But then fairy tales have always been as much about evil as they are about good. In order to reach a happy ending, a hero or heroine usually has to deal with an evil witch or wicked relatives.

In the case of "The Shape of Water," evil comes in the fastidious form of Michael Shannon's soulless Richard Strickland, a government agent who thinks killing and dissecting the creature is the only way to understand it. Opposing him is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is captivated by the creature's capacity for emotion and intelligence.

"The Shape of Water" arrives on the heels of "Wonderstruck," and the two films focus on lead characters that are either deaf or unable to speak. So both films present us with stories where our perception of the world is altered, and the filmmakers make us see and hear differently.

In Todd Haynes' "Wonderstruck" half the film played out like a silent black and white film with musical accompaniment. Haynes' approach emphasized visual stimuli to make us experience the world as the deaf young heroine did. In "The Shape of Water," Del Toro gives us a mute heroine and a monster who cannot speak as our romantic leads and their scenes together play without dialogue. So much of this film also plays like a silent movie in which the images and the actors' faces must tell the story.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Guillermo Del Toro on the set of "The Shape of Water." Here he directs Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins.

Del Toro is blessed with actors who are particularly expressive. Hawkins has a sweet, open face on which you can read her every emotion plus she has exquisitely expressive hands that often speak for her. Jones, working in an elaborate creature suit and makeup, is equally expressive through his movements and gestures. Together they create beautiful poetry and even get to share a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance. (Listen to my Cinema Junkie Podcast 131 to hear Jones talk about what went into creating that scene.)

The film begins with Richard Jenkins' character Giles spinning a tale for us in a voiceover narration. The details of the story seem fantastical, but by the end of the film, we accept all that we have witnessed. The film arrives in the same year as the live-action adaptation of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and offers an intriguing counterpoint to it.

In Disney's film, Belle is a victim of sorts who martyrs herself by taking her father's place as the Beast's prisoner. And the poor Beast is a victim of a curse that has taken away his good looks and made him into a sad, bitter monster. But Belle's love eventually lifts the Beast's curse so they can live happily ever after as a beautiful couple. (The ending plays differently in Jean Cocteau's sly and magical 1946 film where Belle seems almost sad when her Beast turns into a handsome prince.)

But Del Toro's fairy tale plays out much differently.

Elise is no victim and is, in fact, the catalyst for the whole plot. She makes contact with the amphibious man, she teaches him her language, she engineers a plan to tray and free him, and she seeks out a romantic relationship with him. And guess what? He doesn't have to change. Elise falls in love with the creature for exactly who and what he is, and in accepting him as he is, she ends up discovering something liberating in herself. Del Toro delivers a clever, adult and thoroughly enchanting tale about love, acceptance and tolerance.

As with "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Shape of Water" has the surface trappings of a fairy tale but underneath is a savvy sense of social criticism. "The Shape of Water" has a Cold War era setting with the U.S. government focused on its rivalry with Russia. But Del Toro's film looks to people that would have been part of ignored segments of society at that time — African Americans, gays, the disabled — and places them at the center of his tale. He urges compassion for things we don't understand and tolerance for those who are different. He questions authority and applauds activism. His film may exist in some fairy tale version of the past, but it still speaks to contemporary issues.

Plus, the film is simply stunning to behold. The production design and cinematography are rich and nuanced. There is so much detail in every scene that the film just holds you rapt. You don't want to blink for fear of missing something.

"The Shape of Water" (rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language) arrives like an early Christmas present from Santa del Toro. It's a breathtaking work that ranks with Del Toro's best and that shines as one of the best films of this year.

“The Shape of Water” just garnered 14 Broadcast Film Critic nominations, and this weekend you can finally enjoy the film for yourself.

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