Guillermo Del Toro is nothing if not nostalgic. This serves him well enough as inspiration, but there’s a vapidity to his work that’s derived from recycling his passions instead of reinventing them. He’s made an entire career out of movies about monsters, but still rarely scratches below the subject’s surface. All of his love for the monstrous, the macabre, the miserable results in ultimately unchallenging, obvious observations. The same can be said of his latest effort, which despite being far better than utter dreck like his 2015 Bava tribute Crimson Peak and his 2013 Japanese-influenced Pacific Rim, remains woefully underwhelming.
The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s Cold War-era spin on Beauty and the Beast, a property he was once going to adapt more directly, now given an adult aim by making sex between the unlikely lovers implied instead of ignored. Beyond the fairytale inspiration, the fantastical romance recalls much older, better movies like Universal Monsters staple Creature from the Black Lagoon and Soviet sci-fi classic Amphibian Man.
Del Toro wears these influences, like his heart, on his sleeve, so there’s a sense of pride and a level of care applied to the homages that borders on endearing, but he coddles these inspirations too preciously for them to really strike a meaningful chord. He’s a sentimentalist hopped up on sugar.
The sweetness on display could conceivably work with this very capable cast, if only Del Toro wasn’t so good at distracting himself. He can’t help but expand the story to include a needlessly cartoonish villain and a dramatically pointless side-story of an undercover Russian agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose sympathy for the tale’s Beast stand-in offers convenient shortcuts. These characters occupy enough of the screen time that they continually stall the emotional momentum the director is trying to build.
Michael Shannon always brings an intimidating presence to his roles, but his evil enforcer here is a comical adversary that follows in the footsteps of past Del Toro antagonists by being a human that takes on physically monstrous qualities in the name of metaphors and symbolism. Shannon plays the part in familiar fashion, which becomes especially tiresome when he has whole scenes to himself like a snapshot of his home life or a bit where he splurges on a fancy car.
None of this humanizes the character, nor makes him multi-dimensional, so it’s tough to understand why Del Toro bothers with these scenes other than to merely suggest that he’s attempting to flesh out a character that has cardboard in his DNA.
What he should be focusing on is the love story centred between mute janitor Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and the unnamed captive creature (Doug Jones) that is being housed at the facility where Eliza and her talkative ally Zelda (Octavia Spencer) both work. This is where Del Toro’s passion lies and it’s certainly where the movie operates the least mechanically.
Eliza clearly provides the main narrative thrust as well, so when the movie belongs to her and the creature, it reaches for a tenderness that is appreciated even if the gooiness is not. These portions of the movie owe almost everything to Hawkins, who is sublime in her silent performance. She’s the best part of the movie with a considerable lead on every other admirable aspect that Del Toro displays.
It’s not surprising that the movie features a stock villain or that the Cold War setting results in Russian interference, but when these elements detract from the overall experience and that experience relies so specifically on one performance, the missed opportunities become tough to ignore. Even though Hawkins and her love story could carry a more unusual, less cluttered movie than this one, Eliza has to fight for screen time here as it’s being used up by supporting players that matter little in the grand scheme of the narrative.
Only Del Toro would make a movie about a sexual relationship between a woman and a merman and then wrap around the novel concept such a scattered, simplistic plot so conventionally constructed that it renders the emotional impact ineffective. Missed opportunities everywhere.
In usual Del Toro fashion, the visuals are crisp and the design work is detailed, so there are still things to enjoy beyond Hawkins’ wonderful performance. The sea green colour palette adds a fantastical flair that often makes watching the movie feel appropriately like looking into an aquarium. Added to this effect is an expectedly heavy amount of rain, but at least Del Toro finds a way to weave the weather into the plot.
The sets have a quaint, quirky quality to them that knowingly suspends the movie between fiction and reality, a place where Del Toro’s movies often reside. There’s still more to appreciate in Doug Jones, a longtime Del Toro collaborator who dons a slippery suit to become the merman and still pushes a personality through the costume, makeup, and effects. Composer Alexandre Desplat’s accordion-heavy score is also a nice mood setter, if a bit too mawkish at times.
When one robotically runs down the list of elements on display in The Shape of Water, a fairly pleasant impression emerges. There is much to praise in terms of individual efforts. It’s not even like the thankless roles played by Shannon and Stuhlbarg are harmed by bad acting. And yet, the movie squanders its offbeat romantic potential by busying its already predictable plot and sentimentalizing its admittedly fairytale-esque simplicity. The result is cute, but tediously trite. Who knew that Water tasted so much like syrup?