‘The Shape of Water’ is a bizarre fantasy story

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“The Shape of Water” is a surreal story of an improbable princess and dreadful monster. It also includes an amphibian beast that becomes a “prince.” So, we might redefine the word “monster.” This adult fairy tale is simplistic, predictable and manipulative, but also a visually stunning creature feature with a magically weird and wonderful love story.

Director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) wrote this story and co-wrote the screenplay (with Vanessa Taylor “Divergent”). Some say it’s not necessarily about the story, but how the story is told. Sure, there were some gratuitous scenes of nudity and brutality, but if you buy into this fable, it can be mesmerizing and strangely poetic.

From the stylish and imaginative sets, unpretentious score (Alexandre Desplat) and flawless casting, the audience is slowly drawn into this melodrama set in 1962 Baltimore. During the cold war and space race, lonely mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Sharing a room with Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist, she uses sign language to communicate but struggles to make ends meet.

Working as custodians in a secret government laboratory with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s life is changed forever when they discover a classified experiment. Although the spunky Spencer steals as many of the scenes as she supports, Hawkins displays sweet innocence, surprising strength and an inner beauty that is spellbinding.

Del Toro said about the role, “Not only was Sally my first choice, she was my only choice.” To prepare for the part of a mute, she studied Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. To be the “understated lady,” she studied Audrey Hepburn. Her bravura performance provides a glimpse of how silent films once captured moviegoers.

Del Toro admits to having almost every cast member in mind as he wrote each part. Included was Michael Shannon as researcher Richard Strickland, a sadistic tyrant completely devoid of compassion for fellow workers or the creature he discovered. Too much like Snidely Whiplash, he snarls, “That’s Right, I dragged that filthy thing out of the river muck in South America. We need to take it apart, learn how it works.”

Curious more than anything, Elisa feels a connection to the creature, played by Doug Jones. Not using motion capture or CGI, Jones spent three hours a day in makeup. As neither the creature nor Elisa can speak, she teaches him simple sign words and treats him to music from Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Eventually, she signs to Giles, “When he looks at me, he does not know how I am incomplete. He sees me as I am.” Giles acknowledges, “Whatever this thing is, you need it.”

This picture cannot be easily classified into any single genre. It’s a love story, monster movie, silent picture, espionage flick, drama and fantasy. There is even a song and dance number near the end that pays homage to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, really! Although mostly low-key and having sparse dialog, the pacing never drags.

It’s thoroughly refreshing to see a convincing heroine that never donned the cover of Vogue magazine. She has no super powers and has a physical impediment. But, she’s pure of heart and just so darn likable. The ethical issues presented here display little nuance, but the story asks, “Who saved whom?” and “Who is really the monster?”

“The Shape of Water” is 123 minutes and rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language. Inspired by the classic Beauty and the Beast as well as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), this picture is meticulously crafted to be modestly stunning. Del Toro calls it the most difficult movie he has ever designed.

This very peculiar “B” movie is quirky and primarily designed to please an audience of hopeless romantics. Guillermo del Toro might have summarized it best when he initially pitched the preposterous story to Sally Hawkins while intoxicated, “I was drunk and it’s not a movie that makes you sound less drunk.”

Ron’s Rating: A
Leigh’s Rating: C+

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Ron & Leigh Martel