The Shape of Water Review

Guillermo del Toro has left quite the impact on the world of cinema. His alternating between Spanish-language fantasy films and more mainstream American features have allowed him to cover a wide range of genres, sprinkling in his uniquely vivid imagination throughout them. Though not all of his films are equally as enthralling, Guillermo del Toro has become one of the few fantasy filmmakers to manage to win over more traditionalist critics. His most recent film, The Shape of Water, even managed to become the second-ever fantasy film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Despite this acclaim, along with its terrific acting and a handful of inspired elements, The Shape of Water often stumbles due to its inability to make its central relationship resonate, and for its over-reliance on its clichéd, psychopathic antagonist.

Set during the midst of the Cold War, The Shape of Water centers around woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner at a secret government laboratory. Though her inability to talk makes her something of an outcast, she has at least two friends in her closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling commercial artist, and fellow cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who works as something of an interpreter for Elisa at the workplace.

One day, the government lab receives a mysterious creature from South America, captured by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The lab intends to study the amphibious creature under Strickland’s eye, in hopes that it can help them gain an edge over the Russians.

Elisa, curious about the creature, sneaks into its containment center to get a better understanding of it. She soon learns that the creature is capable of displaying reason and emotion (it quickly picks up on Elisa’s sign language), and also finds out that Strickland has been torturing the creature. Feeling a connection to the creature as a fellow outcast, Elisa soon forms a secret bond with it, one which blossoms into romance.

On paper, it sounds like something of a contemporary fairy tale. But sadly, the film only feels like ‘magic’ in small bursts. The idea of a mute woman falling in love with a fantasy monster sounds interesting in concept, but the grave flaw with this central relationship is that the creature isn’t given enough human qualities to make their romance have any real emotional weight.

As it is, taking an amphibious monster – even a humanoid one – and turning it into a romantic interest is already a hard sell. But The Shape of Water fails at making its creature feel like a worthy significant other for Elisa, as it comes across as more animal-like than anything. Yes, the creature can understand sign language, but that’s about as far as its human traits go. Even Giles refers to the creature as a “wild animal” after it devours a cat, and explains that they “can’t expect it to be anything more.” Sure, it’s sad to see the creature get electrocuted by Strickland, but that almost seems like a cheap ploy to get audiences to empathize with a creature that, otherwise, doesn’t boast many empathetic traits.

Sure, The Shape of Water tries its hand at a few other tricks to build sympathy for its monster (the creature even possesses healing powers, which seems like a requirement for all misunderstood monsters by this point). But the romance between Elisa and the creature never really clicks because it doesn’t so much feel like a love between two people – with one of those people just happening to be a fantasy monster – but between a human woman and a wild animal, which makes things feel more awkward than beautiful.

This is only magnified by the film’s inconsistent pace. The earlier half of the film moves so quickly that the romance between Elisa and the creature feels like it just kind of happens out of nowhere, while the second half seemingly comes to a dead stop, with the characters’ personalities and stories coming to a stand-still. This whiplash-like pacing of moving too quickly before stopping in its tracks makes the development of Elisa’s relationship with the creature feel non-existent.

The film’s other great narrative flaw is its over-emphasis on Strickland. Michael Shannon’s acting in the role is brilliant, but he really only has so much to work with. Not every villain has to be a three-dimensional human being, and sometimes the irredeemable psychopath villain can work. But it’s an archetype that’s so overplayed that it’s hard to make it standout, and while Shannon’s acting might make the role a bit more memorable than it would otherwise be, Strickland still comes off as like he’s just ticking the boxes on a checklist of the requirements for a despicable villain. The film makes an attempt to turn him into something of a commentary on the traditional American “man of the future” archetype (he has two children, a nice house, and a seemingly perfect wife to thinly guise his twisted nature), but even that’s a commentary that feels overly familiar. So even thematically, Strickland comes across as clichéd.

Despite its narrative shortcomings, The Shape of Water still has its merits. Again, it needs to be repeated that the acting is top-notch, and though the creature may not be able to win us over emotionally, it is a visual marvel, as are the set and costume designs. Perhaps the film’s best attribute is its musical score, which may linger in the memory more strongly than the film itself.

There are bits and pieces of greatness sprinkled here and there in The Shape of Water, but its core themes of love and feeling like an outcast from society just don’t resonate, its pace feels off, and it falls prey to the old movie trope of dedicating too much time to showing us how cruel its one-dimensional villain is.

I won’t say it’s a flat-out bad movie, but The Shape of Water is far from great, and one of Guillermo del Toro’s clunkier efforts. If it weren’t for the obvious Oscar-baiting elements the film provides, it would be a complete mystery as to how The Shape of Water managed to snag Best Picture while so many other fantasy films got the cold shoulder.

The Shape of Water may boast some merits that rise to the surface. But on the whole, it sinks.

 

4

Top 5 Reasons the Best Animated Feature Oscar is Great

The Oscars have come and gone, and amid all the forced social statements that only served to make the people involved feel important, some good did come out of the event. Mad Max: Fury Road won a bunch of stuff, and Inside Out won Best Animated Feature.

On the downside, Best Animated Feature was the only thing Inside Out was allowed to win, given the Academy’s blatant bias against animated films (diversity!). Lord knows more than a few animated films should have won Best Picture by this point, especially after the turn of the new millennium, when more and more animated films have become more and more sophisticated. It’s also well over due that a director of an animated film gets a Best Director nod, and hell, why not nominate a voice actor if their performance deserves it (in the case of Inside Out, Amy Poehler definitely should have got some recognition). And don’t get me started on why on Earth no animated film has been nominated for Art Direction (shouldn’t they dominate the category?). In short, it would be nice to see animated films win more than their token award and the music/song categories.

With all this said, the Best Animated Feature category, in the fifteen years its been around, has become something special in its own right. Now, the Academy has been sure to stunt it as much as they can, often handing the award out in filler moments and “bathroom break” segments, not to mention in the award’s early years they often had filler nominees (Jimmy Neutron? Shark Tale?!), many great animated films that should have been nominated weren’t (Ponyo, The Secret World of Arrietty, etc.), and not all winners have been deserving (Happy Feet, Brave). But the award has slowly evolved into something meaningful, and even with all the missteps in its early years, it has greatly boosted the efforts of animation over the last decade and a half.

So while there’s still some work to be done, a lot of good has come out of the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Notably, it has allowed for certain types of films to be nominated (and win) awards that the other, more live-action-y awards would never allow.

Without further rambling, here are five reasons why the Best Animated Feature Oscar is not only great, but even manages to outdo the live-action awards present at the show, including Best Picture.

 

5: Films that make money can actually win

Frozen

While the Academy Awards often seem to have some kind of allergy towards movies that make money, no matter how good they might be (note that The Force Awakens didn’t win a single award), the Best Animated Feature Oscar is apparently immune to this particular bias. A number of winners have all been huge box office successes, with Toy Story 3 and Frozen both being billion-dollar movies. Not every movie that makes a lot of money is great, but there have been plenty of films that are both quality movies and financial successes, and it seems too often the latter prevents certain films from winning anything, so it’s nice that at least one award has the door open for movies that people actually cared to see.

4: Foreign films can be nominated… and win!

Spirited Away

How many times have foreign films been nominated for Best Picture? How many have won? The answer to the former is very few, and the answer to the latter is none. Meanwhile, Best Animated Feature has seen an increasing number of foreign nominees, from earlier years with the likes of The Triplets of Belleville to this year’s award with When Marnie Was There. Notably, the award’s second-ever winner, Spirited Away, hails from Japan. In just fifteen years, the Best Animated Feature award has shown more diversity than Best Picture has in eighty-eight.

3: The winners are actually entertaining

Inside Out

Okay, so this one’s more subjective. Look, there have been a number of entertaining Best Picture winners over the years, but most of them were decades ago. Aside from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, what Best Picture winner since the dawn of the twenty-first century has had any substantial form of re-watchability? Have any others been anything more than that same, particular style of “Oscar movie?” I’m not even saying they’re all bad, but are they the kind of movies you’d be quick to go to when you want to watch a great movie? Some of the nominees maybe (Mad Max), but probably not the winners. The Best Animated Feature award, on the other hand, has provided some highly enjoyable winners, and not just for children. Films such as Spirited Away and Inside Out are incredibly insightful, while still being a whole lot of fun.

2: History actually remembers the films involved

Finding Nemo

Let’s really think for moment how many recent Best Picture winners will go down in history as all-time classics. Does anyone even bring up Argo or Slumdog Millionaire (movies I enjoyed, by the way) in conversation anymore? Does anyone revere The Hurt Locker or The King’s Speech in the same way they do the classics of yesteryear?

You know what people do remember? The Finding Nemos, Toy Stories, The Incredibles, the Ups, the Spirited Aways, the Frozens, I could go on. Animated films simply have a universal appeal that break age and cultural barriers. More people will openly admit to crying during the first fifteen minutes of Up than they would about any of the recent Best Picture winners. Animated films have a way of leaving an indelible mark on audiences. That’s more than you can say about most the movies the Academy deems Best Picture worthy.

1: Animated films win something!

Big Hero 6

I’ve saved the most obvious for last! The number one reason why the Best Animated Feature Oscar is great is that it allows animated films to actually win something.

Yes, it’s a crying shame that the award has become something of a token, since there’s very little else the Academy seems interested in even thinking about nominating animation, let alone having them win. But as stated previously, the existence of the award itself has encouraged a stronger output of animated features. And because of it, some animated films that many audiences might not otherwise know about (like the aforementioned foreign films, or smaller features like the delightful Song of the Sea), can actually receive some recognition, and may gain an audience or two.

If only the award were given better treatment by the Academy itself. Still, the fact that this award allows animated films, and by extension, all the above categories, to be recognized in any way makes it a showcase for far more versatile and entertaining storytelling than Best Picture has allowed in a very, very long time. If not ever.

My Opinions on the Oscar Nominees

They suck.

Anger

Okay, I guess I should elaborate more than that.

I guess you could say my problem with this year’s Oscar nominees is basically the same as my problem with the Oscar nominees every year. It’s once again not an award ceremony celebrating the best films of the year, but an love-fest dedicated to the best of certain types of films (save for Mad Max, which has miraculously snagged 10 nominations despite the fact that it’s actually entertaining).

It baffles me that every year you read how the Oscar viewership keeps slipping, and that they receive backlash from fans, yet they willingly continue to do the same things they always do, believing that simply changing the host will restore people’s faith in them.

If the Academy Awards really wanted to win over people and viewership, they should nominate movies people actually care about! Shocking, I know. But it’s crazy enough that it just might work.

Now, I’m not saying that they can’t also nominate the “smaller” artsy movies they love so much, or that they should just nominate any movie that a lot of people saw (that would equally as disastrous). But surely they can find some kind of middle ground?

The obvious omission this year is that Inside Out isn’t nominated for Best Picture, despite being the most acclaimed film of the year, one of the biggest box office champs of 2015, and probably one of the most warmly-embraced movies of recent memory. Sure, it got the token Best Animated Feature nomination, and a Best Original Screenplay mention, but there really is no reason why it shouldn’t be in the running for Best Picture, other than the Academy’s blatant bias against animated films. For people who often gloat about their embracing of the little guy and diversity, and trying to make changes to the world, they certainly are closed-minded when it comes to the movies they nominate.

Given that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is also critically acclaimed, and one of the biggest movies of all time, I think it’s earned a Best Picture mention as well. I mean, if James Cameron’s garishly CG’d retelling of Pocahontas, and Neil Blomkamp’s abysmal and pretentious District 9 can get a mention, there’s no reason why a return to form like The Force Awakens shouldn’t get its name in the Best Picture running.

Then there’s the other categories. Where is Inside Out’s Best Original Score nomination it so rightfully deserves? Or The Peanuts Movie in Best Animated Feature? Why the Hell has there never been a director of an animated film nominated for Best Director?

I’m also guessing that, just like last year’s award show, we’ll be seeing countless slams towards super hero films by the presenters, as they pretend that the artsy movies they nominate don’t have their own long list of cliches and predictability. God forbid some people make movies that actually gain an audience.

JJ Abrams Totally Real Quote

I’m probably getting too worked up over this. A wise man once said “you can’t win against fools.” And if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences can’t be more open-minded towards different mediums and genres of films, particularly ones that prove acclaimed and timeless, then they most certainly are foolish. They probably aren’t worth me writing all of this. I mean, if you can’t nominate the most acclaimed film of the year (Inside Out) or the biggest cultural phenomenon (Star Wars) for Best Picture, then they’re clearly in the wrong line of work.

If doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, then the Academy must be comprised of an insane asylum.