2006 was an underrated year in film. It may not be mentioned along the likes of 1939, 1972, 1974, 1994, or 1999, but it deserves to be mentioned in that conversation. Don Hertzfeldt released the first part of a fantastic trilogy with Everything Will Be Ok, Darren Arofnosky’s The Fountain is both one of my favorite films and the film I find myself revisiting the most, Children of Men is a modern sci-fi classic that (with the possible exception of Delicatessen) represents the apex of the Dystopian genre, and The Lives of Others updated fellow classic The Conversation to wonderful results. And that’s just at the peak and not even including such films as The Fall (one of the most beautiful films ever shot), Lake of Fire (one of the greatest documentaries), Crank (one of the most purely fun films), Idiocracy(one of the most prescient films), or countless others.
I mention all this because there was another film released that year which may have been the greatest of all of those, Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a dark fantasy classic with bits of horror and a healthy helping of a war story which made Mexican director Guillermo del Toro into one of the favorite directors of countless film fans. I mention it not only because The Shape of Water is also fantasy film directed by del Toro, but because it truly feels like a companion piece or spiritual sequel for better or worse. It reuses quite a few of the plot beats and themes of that movie, both being fairy tales about a “princess”, features a villain who is disfigured and whose injuries are shown in graphic detail, features a kindly person seeking to undermine the efforts of the military with a special place in their heart for our protagonist, certain spoilery bits which I’ll note at the bottom, and of course features Doug Jones under heavy makeup (though much closer here visually to his role as Abe Sapien in del Toro’s also great Hellboy) yet doing fantastic work.
Doug Jones has long been an underappreciated actor by the public and by awards largely thanks to how many roles he plays buried under prosthetics (with Andy Serkis undeservedly stealing that attention but my opinions of him are another story) though loved by fans for his roles in such works as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (being the show’s greatest villain in the tall Gentleman from “Hush”), Hellboy, and Pan’s Labyrinth and here he gives another Oscar worthy performance. Seriously, the lack of Oscar talk or even a single nomination so far for any award for him is criminal as Jones is able to move and emote better than just about anyone else and that’s not even counting the fact that he is doing so as a nonverbal character through so much makeup.
There’s also a heavy dose of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie here with the title character quite resembling Sally Hawkins’ in that they are quirky women prone to living in fantasy with the film unafraid to show off their sexual sides with a pinch of Jeunet’s Delicatessen thrown in (the dark, grungy city setting contributing a large portion of that). Hawkins is great here as well, a far cry from the intentionally off-putting lead she played when she broke out in Happy-Go-Lucky. She has a smile to light up 100 rooms with a tenderness and sweetness that is never cloying. I can’t speak to her signing ability, but it looked good to the untrained eye and she’s able to infuse it with emotion that most actors are able to use their voice for. Yes, I know that giving the lead a disability is rather Oscar-baity, but here they are able to tie it in so well to the plot and themes, give it a surprise yet fantastic payoff, and use it for both humor and drama so I’m inclined to go with it.
In terms of supporting actors, Jenkins is great as always, and for one of the few times since The Visitor (The Cabin in the Woods, Bone Tomahawk, and to a lesser extent Let Me Inbeing the other examples) is given a role truly worthy of him. Michael Stuhlbarg has the disadvantage of going up against Jones and Jenkins in the movie, but he quietly gives a fantastic and likable performance of his own. Even at the most depressing his character gets, he’s always able to fill him with such warmth and spirit. Stuhlbarg’s Boardwalk Empire costar Michael Shannon steps into the Sergi López role effortlessly and holds back on some scene chewing opportunities while grounding some of the most outlandish moments (if his family and the dealership aren’t parodies of those stereotypical roles, then I question what planet del Toro is from). Octavia Spencer plays another Octavia Spencer role.
As far as the story goes, the Beauty and the Beast comparisons are title and vaguely genre deep (and considering how ripped “the beast” is here, it may not even be that) and so insignificant that the film doesn’t even bother to crowbar in a reference to it. Just as Pan’s Labyrinth forced the fairy tale structure through a more brutal and realistic setting, the film here does so with the romance and musical genres. It’s far more hopeful though and contains far more comedic moments. This is a cruel and unfair world, but genuinely good people and true happiness exist in it. It’s no less beautiful, but it is less bleak.
Del Toro’s English language films have long suffered from a reputation of being inferior and dumber than his Spanish language films and it is an accusation I can’t really argue with. Even his best English language films (the Hellboy films, Crimson Peak, and Blade II) are far clunkier dialogue wise (which is understandable), and tend to more broad plots with none of them approaching The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, but The Shape of Water changes that. Sure, it is heavy handed at times with the last diner scene being especially egregious (I half expected that man to kick a puppy while he was at it) and the love of movie stuff being a bit uneven (sometimes to great effect and other times feel extraneous and forced as in any scene involving the movie theater) and I’m frankly tired of so many characters in films having it, but it was delightful and beautiful from beginning to end.
It’s a wonderous film that I only regret wasn’t released around here in time for my top 25 films of the year because it would have been right up around the top of that list. In a year that seemed torn between having my favorite directors add to their legacy (Arofnosky, Villeneuve, McDonagh, Nolan) and those delivering their weakest films (Gunn, Wright, and presumably Whedon and Ponsoldt), I’m so happy that this film joins the former category as del Toro delivered on the promise of the premise, lived up to the critical plaudits, and made his best film in years. He made a film which filled me with both joy and a number of other feelings and left me wanting to recommend the film to everyone.
- Having the pie place waiter be both racist and homophobic was hardly out of place for the time period but throwing both one after each other complete with the fact that the actor was absolutely terrible (though thankfully that cartoonish accent was in-character).
- The musical scene is probably the best shorthand and explanation (aside from “Once More with Feeling” for the latter bit) for why characters break out in song in musicals. If I was to explain to a young movie watcher the basics of the genre, I’d show them this film (with judicious fast forwarding mostly out of a shared awkwardness) and specifically that scene.
- That ending felt a bit too similar to Pan’s Labyrinth with its maybe fantasy or maybe depressing end (I lean towards the latter for both but here my heart realllly wants it to be the former).
- But… as I texted to someone right after the movie, “You and me, together forever” *eyes well up*