‘The Shape of Water’ is slightly out of depth, despite gorgeous imagery

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Guillermo del Toro has quite the imagination. His latest film, “The Shape of Water,” joins an illustrative list of fantasy-oriented films, including “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and “Hellboy” — none of which have elicited as many prerelease giggles as the plot of this latest tale.

There’s no question as to whether “The Shape of Water” is visually stunning. Creature-character actor Doug Jones, famous for his creepy and contortionist performances in similar fantasy films, including some of del Toro’s, shines gracefully in hues of teal-green as the amphibious half of the film’s romance. Even though it opens on a scene that looks CGI-ed to the nines, the film’s color palette and use of light are certainly captivating. Del Toro is no stranger to unbelievability either — that’s not what’s at stake here.

Instead, what brings a level of silliness that challenges the film’s apparent attempt at seriousness is its central narrative. The idea that a fantastically beautiful creature and a marginalized human might fall in love is familiar — “Beauty and the Beast” is so well-loved that it warranted a live-action remake (or was that simply motivated by economics?).

“The Shape of Water” stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute (but not deaf) janitor at a research facility that has recently accepted a new specimen for study: what can only be described as a masculinized mermaid, sans tail. Elisa develops an affinity for the creature and smuggles him out of the facility when Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the misogynistic head of research on the project, is ordered to kill the beast and perform an autopsy so that scientists can understand its breathing mechanism.

The research is motivated by Americans’ desire to beat Russia in the space race — the stakes of which are generic and loosely connected at best, though they hardly distract from the whimsy of the central narrative. Elisa is aided by her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), neither of whom question her attraction to the creature, even when the latter walks in on them having sex.

Little is left to the imagination in terms of the coital relationship between Elisa and her amphibious lover. Sadly, that’s just one of a few angles that makes “The Shape of Water” amusing but slightly awkward.

Towards the end of the film, when Elisa’s time with her lover is nearing its end, the pair sit on opposite sides of her dinner table. Despite the creature’s budding ability to understand sign language, he can hardly communicate on his own and barely understands complex sentences. Thus, it becomes difficult for Elisa to communicate her love for him.

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If music is a universal language, why shouldn’t the film allow the mute character to burst into a “La La Land”-esque song and dance? “The Shape of Water” holds nothing back, not even when such musical detours detract from the film’s plot or even its diegesis.

Perhaps the film is attempting a tongue-in-cheek romance. Maybe this is del Toro’s way of dabbling in a blend of drama and humor — the two genres are by no means mutually exclusive. But “The Shape of Water” sacrifices effectiveness in order to tie in unnecessary sexual and musical elements. Its narrative may have better lived up to its visual power if Elisa had simply identified with the amphibian, rather than fallen in love with him.

That being said, not even a 1950s-era musical number can dampen Hawkins’ performance in this film. If not for her unbridled commitment to the forcefulness of her character, “The Shape of Water” might have lost its seriousness altogether. This is not to say that the film should have cut ties with its sense of humor — rather, if the film had leaned into its overtly comical notes, it would achieve a level of self-awareness that it sorely lacks.

In other words, “The Shape of Water” doesn’t seem to take itself seriously, but it also doesn’t seem to think it’s funny, either. This indecision leaves the audience bewildered, drowning in a mix of dreamworthy beauty, impactful performances and hints at humor that just don’t add up.

“The Shape of Water” is currently playing at Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].