“The Shape of Water” – sparkes but doesn’t fully set sail

Nutshell: While Shape is a fascinating story with absolutely incredible performances by Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer, it has neither the sense of wonder of Pan’s Labyrinth, nor the suspense of The Devil’s Backbone. But I can’t say I hated it. No, I wasn’t fully transported, but I was certainly fascinated. Grade: B

“She said ‘Thank You’.”

Story: A mute woman has a job cleaning a top-secret government research facility.  One day, she finds out that said research is being conducted on a humanoid from the sea who can’t connect with his vicious captors.  Hmm.  Perhaps she’s not alone in the world after all?

Genre I’d put it in: Creature Romance Feature

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Original, but you’ll see homages to many films, including Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Gotta say: I love me some Guillermo del Toro.  Hellboy, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth…heck, I even enjoy Mimic and Blade II.  So when I heard that del Toro was going to riff on the Creature, I was intrigued.  Especially since this version promised to look at things from the woman’s point of view.  No damsel in distress fainting at the slightest bit of chaos.  A woman who’d be front and center. I applaud the hell outta that.  And I love that the Golden Globes has shown this film a lot of love, to the tune of seven nominations.

But. I ‘m not as all-in as the rest of the critics.  I thought it was an interesting story, and the blend of art-house quirk and 50s creature-feature are two great tastes that work perfectly together. However, I felt a bit like I did the first time I saw Citizen Kane; it’s a great film, and I could talk at length at how it’s a fantastic piece of cinema.  I just didn’t fully connect with the film.

Why not?  Well, Perhaps that’s because the love story felt a bit Stockholm Syndrome-y.  As our hero Elisa (Hawkins) bonds with “Amphibian Man”, I figured Elisa felt strongly for him, but couldn’t really feel it.  No, not because Doug Jones was Man-In-Suit.  Because del Toro focuses a little bit too much on the quirky in her world (and in her), which left me feeling overly twee’d.  (Note: I couldn’t stand the stupidly quirky Amélie, so there’s that.)

Perhaps Shannon’s Agent Strickland was a bit too mustache-twirly.  Yes, Shannon tries his best to inject a sense of urgency to his duties, and his determination to “succeed”.  But an icky subplot about how Strickland finds Elisa appealing because she doesn’t talk – and therefore wouldn’t make a sound when doing the nasty – squicked me out, and felt like needless character backstory that would have been better served on the cutting room floor.  Many of the characterization scenes felt like extra padding to up the run time.  At a hair over two hours, perhaps del Toro felt the need to keep these scenes in.  Pity.

Ditto with a subplot for Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins).  He’s an artist.  He’s an alcoholic.  He’s gay…but that last one felt like a throwaway bit, and a subplot where Giles is besotted with a waiter at a diner felt tacked on.  Seriously, after the scene where Giles takes a chance, that plot is dropped, and the buildup of the diner and the characters within are never heard from again.  Ditto for Giles’ alcoholism; an interesting story lies just beneath the screenplay, but all we get to see is a few interactions between Giles and his former supervisor.  Pity.

Then there’s Elisa’s BFF/coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).  The friendly chemistry Spencer and Hawkins share is believable and sweet.  But I’ve seen Spencer play a riff on this character in The Help and Hidden Figures.  Spencer gives good plucky, but…well, maybe I’m just ticked that such an incredible actress gets the same sort of characters again and again. She’s not the only one, I know.  But added to the rest of the watery bits, it’s the drop that broke this camel’s back.  Don’t even get me started on a dance number that I thought was sweet, but felt like it’d been dropped into the film to simply up the indie house vibe.  (That, and several viewers at the screening I attended busted out in guffaws.  Never a great thing when I’m trying to focus on what’s supposed to be a poignant scene.)

That’s not to say this film isn’t well done in many other regards.  The cinematography is outstanding, with the cold heartlessness of the research facility balanced with the warm but meager comforts of Elisa and Giles’ apartments.  The way Shannon becomes so focused on his own priorities that he becomes a shell driven by obsession.  And, of course, Hawkins’ amazing performance that blends expressions and sign language to be “heard”.  It’s a brilliant performance that’s all the more amazing because Hawkins’ performance looks effortless.  I’m expecting more noms for her this season.

All in all, Shape is a film that adds in too many offbeat tidbits in order to feel quirky, and ends up dragging the story down. Maybe that’s it; Shape is a beautiful film, and there’s no denying it’s beautifully acted.  But it sinks to average depths due to a story that feels weighted down.  Damn that Amphibian Man looks really cool though.

#Protip: Want more background on how they brought Amphibian Man to life?  The LA Times has you covered.

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