Almost three decades ago, the wizards at Disney created a shift in the fabric of entertainment. Starting with “The Little Mermaid,” in 1989, their kids’ movies found an additional audience: Adults. The Disney writers took to including bits and pieces of dialogue and storyline that went right over the heads of young viewers, but would make their parents (and other adults) nod, smile, maybe laugh out loud. When Pixar joined the fray in 1995, with the funny, sweet, and wistful “Toy Story,” that was it. Films for “kids” would never be the same.
But what about something on the order of fairy tale movies just for adults? Not many have been made, and only a few — “The Fall,” “The Company of Wolves,” “The City of Lost Children” — are worthwhile. Ah, but there was also Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical, multiple Oscar-winning “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a film that, for so many reasons, was in no way for young viewers.
Now, here’s del Toro again, with one of the year’s best films, one that defies categorization, but enters into science fiction-horror-fantasy-romance-Cold War-Space Race territory, and is, due to its (tasteful) sexual content and (sometimes brutal, but never exploitative) violence, in no way for kids.
It’s 1962. A mute cleaning woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, who does her entire role in sign language) lives a lonely but content life in an apartment over an old fourth-run cinema, spending any free time hanging out with her neighbor, a lonely, frustrated commercial artist, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and working the midnight shift with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), tidying up a secret scientific facility.
One day, an “asset” arrives in a big metal and glass tank, filled with water, followed by the man who has brought it there, the short-tempered, imposing, power-hungry Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is overseeing a project involving what’s in the tank: A creature listed in the credits as “Amphibian Man” (gracefully played by Doug Jones, who has portrayed creatures in a number of del Toro films).
There is some blood to be spilled, along with a couple of severed fingers. There are lots of eggs, and a great deal of awareness given to the passing of time (from clocks to calendars to egg timers). There’s the incident of Elisa first meeting the creature, and though he may look terrifying to others, she’s totally at ease in his presence (where he’s either stuck in a tank or chained in a large pool). With the Space Race heating up, there’s major competition between American scientists and their Russian counterparts, and for top secret reasons, the creature may be of value to both sides. Of the adult themes, racism runs quietly rampant within the facility, but don’t worry, the feisty Zelda is ready to stand up against the bullying Strickland; and there’s some romance in the air, or should I say in the water. Neither Elisa not the creature can speak, but they can definitely communicate, initially through sign language, eventually through a unique relationship.
Different characters display qualities that range from cruelty to compassion. One-on-one acting sequences are among the best you’ll ever see due to the fact that the director and the people he’s directing completely understand each other’s needs and vision. My favorite scene is between over-emotional Elisa signing for all she’s worth to Giles, who speaks the words she’s directing at him out loud. The film is visually stunning, thanks to cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who first worked with del Toro 20 years ago on “Mimic.” And it smoothly shifts from the mostly quiet confines of the lab and the small apartments to an outdoor, action-filled race against the clock (there’s that time issue again), all heading toward a gentle, lovely, unexpected ending. I’ve already seen it twice, and intend to again.
“The Shape of Water” opens on Dec. 8.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“The Shape of Water”
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor; directed by Guillermo del Toro
With Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones