Over the Kaijus and through the woods to Del Toro’s mind we go. The creature array put up on display a marvelous collection to show. Species defying reality from eyes to ears to bones. They have no nose and odd shaped toes portrayed by actor, Doug Jones. Love or hate his filmography, Guillermo Del Toro has conjured as many modern fairy tales to rival Tim Burton. And that magic has once again lead him to Oscar territory with The Shape of Water.
In the 60’s, career men like Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) can abuse workplace ethics because life’s a bowl of strawberries. For others like mute janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) her trusted coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and closeted best friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins) it’s an endless circle of monotony and misfortune. That is until an anthropomorphic fish creature (Doug Jones) is brought to the facility under protest. Nights with hard boiled eggs and Benny Goodman jazz lead to more than what the two were asking for down the line no matter the obstacles.
This is a disabled protagonist done right: showing how they live a normal life despite their permanent injury. And at the center is Sally Hawkins who’s hands and facial communications would make any animator jealous. Richard Jenkins shares the spotlight with his leading lady with a humble, kind and sympathetic personality. Octavia Spencer is always a riot wherever she goes. And Michael Shannon is the only actor who turned some corny material into something menacing and intimidating from voice, to mannerisms. Just imagine if Tim Curry was a dramatic actor trying to keep up the masculine image from long ago to get an idea. Of course, Doug Jones has been playing costumed creatures with ease long before Andy Serkis was in motion capture pajamas, and this is no exception behind those eyes that have a million words in once expression. The suit alone bends reality when it turns into an underwater Christmas tree to look more digital than practical. There might as well be a sign that asks What’s the difference? All this is woven in a story that flows almost seamlessly exploring the lives of people who were at the time considered abnormal then but commonplace today. Individually they’re amazing, but together they’re a force to be reckoned with.
In the background, Alexandre Desplant’s score is a two hour lullaby from beginning to end with harps, violins and saxophones straight out of a romanticized Bioshock. Coupled with Del Toro’s trust in his now Oscar nominated crew behind cinematography and production design, the non-psychedelic 60’s is finally visible to the world with warm sunrises and New York style city lights. Everything feels perfect, except for a distracting sub-plot involving a spy which takes away from the development of the creature. As impressive as the fish-god is to the eyes, the spy story robs him of any further development with Hawkins as their lives become more intertwined.
The Shape of Water is an near perfect inverse take on The Creature From the Black Lagoon. For all the hype around the fish, it’s the human interactions that overshadow the aquarium, no disrespect to Doug Jones. But I hope this swims away while lead actress, supporting actor, score, production design and director Oscars in the process.