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The Shape of Water - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 5, 2017 at 7:00 PM

Earlier this year, Disney broke all kinds of box office records with their live-action adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.” While certainly enjoyable, I’d be lying if I said the remake didn’t leave me longing for a fresher take on the tale as old as time. Guillermo del Toro has answered my wish with “The Shape of Water.” Like “Pan's Labyrinth,” this is an original fairy tale that feels like it’s been passed down from generation to generation. It also has the distinction of being a fairy tale exclusively for older audiences. Of course when you think about it, a lot of classic stories intended for kids go to some pretty sadistic places. In that sense, del Toro is perhaps the closest any modern filmmaker has come to replicating the voices of the Brothers Grimm.

Sally Hawkins has yet to hit a false note throughout her career. As the mute Elisa, Hawkins breathes magical charisma into a performance that’s almost exclusively reliant on facial expressions and body language. Elisa works as a cleaning lady at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, which calls the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense to mind. Speaking of “Hellboy,” Doug Jones once again plays an amphibious humanoid creature that’s held captive in the center. Never given a name, the creature finds himself at the mercy of a cruel colonel, played by a chilling Michael Shannon. When Elisa opens her heart to the creature, it marks the beginning of a romance that transcends language, species, and every conceivable obstacle.

In lesser hands, “The Shape of Water” easily could’ve veered into satirical territory. Just as the love between Elisa and the creature defies all logic, though, del Toro has made a fantasy that’s as strange as it is lovely. Both Hawkins and Jones have such genuine chemistry that we not only come to care about this romance, but we actually take it seriously. Even when Elisa and the creature consummate their odd relationship, it’s surprisingly intimate and elegant. Wonderful supporting performances from Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg only add to the heart of this touching story.

Visually speaking, this might be del Toro’s finest achievement, which is saying a lot. The steampunk production design is cleverly draped in green, making this whole world feel like a kingdom constructed from algae. The artists behind the makeup effects help mold the creature into an emotive character that Jones simply escapes into. Perhaps the greatest achievement of all is Alexandre Desplat’s enchanting score, which gives the film the essence of a silent picture from France. Since “The Shape of Water” is full of dialog-free moments, Desplat’s music plays a key role in shaping the many emotions on display.

2017 has been a strong year for mature fantasies, between “The Shape of Water” and to a lesser extent “Okja.” Both of these movies take setups that risk coming off as cliché or silly, but somehow work as gripping entertainment that adult viewers can get wrapped up in. Just as love comes in many different shapes and sizes, they truly challenge what movies can be and make us see the medium in a new way. “The Shape of Water” in particular might be the best gothic love story since “Edward Scissorhands.” It's bizarre, beautiful, and could only come from a brilliant mind.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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