Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is the most magical mute character since The Little Mermaid. There’s definitely something Disney-esque about The Shape of Water, writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War-era fairytale about a budding romance between beauty and… the fish.
The fish (Doug Jones) is really more like an evolutionary intermediary between some sort of underwater amphibian and a modern human. He stands on two legs and likes boiled eggs, but he’s definitely otherworldy — his rubbery skin shines with effervescent teals and blues that recall James Cameron’s Avatar. Unfortunately, only a handful of people have ever seen him. A laboratory in Baltimore full of mad scientists and executives drunk on the Space Race-flavored Kool Aid, if you will, are busy experimenting on “the asset” and sometimes quite violently. A well-cast Michael Shannon plays Colonel Richard Strickland, a ruthless project overseer who loses a few fingers after shocking the asset one too many times with a cattle prod.
Like Disney’s Beast, del Toro’s amphibian-man also has a legitimate reason to act out. But he, too, is calmed by that tale as old as time.
Quirky and reserved Eliza and her best friend Zelda (a charmingly chatty Olivia Spencer) discover the lab’s secret project when they’re called upon to clean up the remains of Colonel Strickland’s mangled hand (Eliza carefully places the fingers in a sandwich bag, where they’re saturated in mustard before reapplied to Strickland — just to give you a feel for del Toro’s offbeat humor). Eliza’s curiosity is piqued when she looks into the tank and spots the creature. After her work is done, she’ll find herself returning to his tank again and again. There’s an immediate kinship between two beings who are outcasts in the real world. Eliza, mute from childhood, feels seen for the first time when she’s with her new friend.
For all the themes of love and inner beauty, it should be stated that this is not a movie for children. While there’s something nostalgic about the actors’ quirky singsong delivery [Eliza’s neighbor, the eccentric elderly artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) feels like he could have been plucked right out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory], del Toro’s love story simply has too much nudity for the youngins. But there’s not an ounce of vulgarity here. A fully nude love scene underwater feels almost like an underwater La La Land sequence.
It might be worth mentioning La La Land, because despite The Shape of Water being firmly fantastical, the two films are cut from the same cloth. The Shape of Water, too, is an unabashed story of love and a rallying cry for the power of the little people to rise above their station. The comparison might rub some people the wrong way, however, since La La Land, after initial praise, received a lot of backlash — it’s just not popular in 2017 to embrace a starry-eyed creed when the world, particularly on the political stage, is going through a dark moment. To del Toro’s credit, The Shape of Water aspires to a little more than “daring to dream” (La La Land) or “finding the beauty within” (Beauty and the Beast). By placing the film during the tumultuous ’60s, del Toro’s able to tackle larger themes: racism (Eliza’s African-American friend Zelda just has to stand there silently as Col. Strickland explains the beast is a monstrosity because he’s not made in God’s image — and maybe she isn’t really, either); homosexuality (Eliza enlists the help of Giles after he’s rejected and ousted by both job and friends); and gender (Eliza can strategize to free her lover without falling under suspicion because who would suspect a woman capable of espionage?).
There are a few holes in the plot. A Russian spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) working undercover as a scientist in Strickland’s lab stumbles upon Eliza’s plot to free the creature and provides some much needed help. But it’s a bit of a leap to go from Dr. Hoffstetler simply knowing Eliza’s aware of the creature to putting two-and-two together that when a few cameras are turned off, it must be Eliza rescuing him. Maybe at 123 minutes a few explanations lay shipwrecked on the edit-room floor. It’s also unclear how Strickland goes from scolding himself for the ridiculousness of interrogatating the whole building “even the help” to knowing just who set the creature free. Of course, the audience knows so we quickly forgive, but the holes are there nonetheless.
The film’s ambitions — from set and costume design to message and story — more than make up for these minor transgressions. The Shape of Water is a plea to stop seeing the “other” in people, while masterfully remaining more charming than didactic. As another ’60s icon, Mary Poppins, said, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” In this case, searing social commentary is tempered with plenty of cinematic sugar — camerawork with a magical skip and a jump to it, a motif of water that poetically connects scenes, and an extraordinary performance from Hawkins, who pours out emotion without speaking a word. As a result, The Shape of Water is transportive. When Eliza and the creature share their first caress the symbolism is hard to miss. Society once used to shun interracial and same-sex relationships as well. Blending the quirkiness of indie comedy with the dramatic storytelling of a Cold War police procedural. The Shape of Water makes a case for the oldest of truths: Love — no matter with whom — is still love.