Guillermo del Toro has by now firmly established himself as Hollywood's premier dreamer. His visual inventiveness is beyond reproach, as evidenced by the delightful creature designs that elevated Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth above mere fantasy schlock. This year's Best Picture, the Shape of Water, is his earnest re-imagining of the 1950s creature feature, where a motley crew of beaten down every-men and women join forces to save an aquatic merman from the evil force of nature that is Michael Shannon. Along the way there is some human on fish sex, because why not?
The film basks in its vintage mid-century setting and traffics in the kind of old-school visual wonderment that made us fall in love with cinema in the first place. It is an old-timey film, set in a dilapidated apartment above a movie theater. Pinhole transitions and a whimsical score are designed to send us back in time. The mute leading lady (Sally Hawkins) strikes up real and meaningful relationships with both her closeted gay neighbor and the fish-man, leading us by the nose to understand that communicating feelings, real and powerful feelings, transcends the boundaries of language, and that sometimes the most meaningful relationships can exist between people who are ignored by the rest of society.
It is a fine film, quite pleasant to look at, because would Guillermo del Toro even be capable of making a visual dud? But the rest of the elements really felt flat to me. The moral of the story is rather... bland and obvious. The plot is not propulsive. I suppose we've been spoiled by Michael Shannon's consistently great acting, because even though he is great as the scenery-chewing villain it still felt a bit mailed-in. The whimsy and magic of old-timey cinema was captured much better in, say, Martin Scorsese's Hugo. And the hook of having a magical fish creature commit unspeakable sins against nature with a willing human participant just didn't really inflame my cinephile passions.
But apparently it was enough to get the job done with the Academy, as they voted this above average, slightly non-traditional fairy tale as the Best Picture of 2017. Personally, I don't think this film came close to touching Get Out. Not in terms of acting, subject matter or execution. Stylish and inventive it is, though arguably less so than many of del Toro's other films, but really I think this is another case of the Academy voting for a crowd-pleasing but rather average film that is perhaps just a little too in love with its own whimsy, visual aesthetic and homage to the magic of Old Hollywood. Having said that, as movies about inter-species sex go, it's definitely up there with the best of them.