December is a magical time at the movies! The holiday season is ornamented with some of the best premiers of year, from blockbusters we’ve been waiting for (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) to adaptations reeling Oscar buzz (Call Me By Your Name), there is no shortage of fantasy, suspense, heart and soul in movie theatres this month. Somewhere in the mix, but in its own category, director Guillermo del Toro’s multi-dimensional monster movie, The Shape of Water, cascades into a nostalgic pool of wonder and beauty worth jumping into.

The Shape of Water is a fable for the senses, testing the animalistic and grotesque behaviours of humanity against the kind-spirited and nurturing ones. Much like the “At Home With Monsters” exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), on until January 7, 2018. A modern day alchemist, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Crimson Peak) lends a large portion of his private art collection to the gallery on Dundas Street West in Toronto: movie memorabilia, comics, medieval etchings, paintings, sculptures, models, garments, props and so much more. The exhibit mirrors seven of thirteen grim and gorgeous rooms of the Bleak House mansion, del Toro’s residence outside of Malibu, California, named after Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name.

The house holds trinkets and treasures in thirteen thematic libraries but at the exhibition, del Toro teams up with the AGO to shine a dim but enchanting light on some of the rooms’ themes, all of which compile inspiration for his internationally successful films. Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, del Toro was bullied in school. At home, he was subjected to a repressive interpretation of Catholicism (his grandmother had him exorcised twice and put metal bottle caps in his shoes as penance). He often revisits these emotional memories in his films, and his exhibit showcases how they shaped a macabre yet heartfelt esthetic within his life and home. The exhibit does not feature anything about his new film, The Shape of Water, but “At Home With Monsters” is an exquisite prerequisite, a rare and personal look into the grotesquely beautiful mind of this modern day horror/fantasy guru, Señor Guillermo del Toro.

Toronto seems to be among Guillermo del Toro’s favourite cities. He gushed when The Shape of Water was selected by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and it went on to become one of the most popular and anticipated films of the festival. After all, The Shape of Water does mark his fourth movie filmed on location in Toronto and the GTA, after Mimic, Pacific Rim, and Crimson Peak. “It has some of the greatest stores, bookstores, restaurants,” he said at a TIFF press conference this past September. “I think if I have my way I’ll have a studio there soon.”

Working with monster actor Doug Jones on this film pegs yet another “fourth” for del Toro. The pair have worked on Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, and now, The Shape of Water. Jones plays the glowing Amphibian Man, a creature captured and brutally tormented in a high-security research facility in 1962, Baltimore. Scarred and mute, a common cleaning lady named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine, Godzilla), comes face to face with this isolated legend of the sea. A living myth. And to some, a deity. She begins to empathize, interacting with the aquatic beast in peril, but what transpires is an emotional collective of gothic whimsicality. Hawkins lightens up the darkened screen, opposite the Amphibian Man ,and there are loud talks in Hollywood of her sweeping the competition this upcoming award season. Her character Elisa is mute but Sally Hawkins’ portrayal speaks volumes.

Miss Elisa Esposito’s pals, Zelda Fuller (Oscar Winner Octavia Spencer), a fellow cleaning lady and “friend of 10 years,” and Giles (Richard Jenkings, Kong: Skull Island), a closeted commercial artist and neighbour, help Elisa along this tale of unexpected events with all the charm, depth and humour of a beloved Disney sidekick. Their characters are naturally good-hearted, but they struggle with their inner demons, like anyone else. They are also both discriminated against in ways that were all too common in the 1960’s: Zelda, for being black, and Giles, for being gay. Director/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro’s empathy for the unconventional transcends through the emotion in these scenes, however, and they speak directly to the (in)humanity of the film.

Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals) is the true villain, paranoid that the Russians are after the “asset” (Amphibian Man) he captured from a South American river on his travels. Shannon’s character, Mr. Strickland, is ruthless. His behaviour is crass and demeaning to everyone around him, and the river monster he’s found remains chained up as he beats and shocks it nearly to death. You’d think del Toro modelled Mr. Strickland after a Hollywood heavy weight, the kind in the news right now, abusing their power over women and anyone else they deem to be beneath them. Everything Colonel Strickland says and does is revolting, but Michael Shannon does an amazing job at it. He irritates, leaving the audience feeling uncomfortable, upset, and disgusted whenever he is on screen. Bravo!

But the truth behind the moral of The Shape of Water is a secret; you need to experience it to fully understand. It is a twisted adult fairytale where Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Beauty & the Beast. The soundtrack, score, set/costume design, and special effects/makeup are impeccable, and the obvious nod to old hollywood monster movies – using prosthetics and an actor (Doug Jones) to play Amphibian Man – leave a large and notable footprint next to the classics. Of course CGI plays a role in the effects, but they’re sublte, adding to the dark elegance of the movie’s overall look.

With a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, winning the Venice Film Festival’s top award, screening at TIFF and being named one of the “Top 10 Films of the Year” by the American Film Institute, this masterful and at times goofy epic is a definite 2018 Oscar front-runner. Not since 2007’s Pan’s Labyrinth has Guillermo del Toro seen the Academy buzzing. Ten years ago, del Toro’s foreign film was nominated for 7 awards, winning 3 – Best Cinematography, Production Design, and Makeup. Can he do it again?

I’ll leave you with one of the my favourite parts of the entire film: Elisa Esposito realizes Amphibian Man is in danger, so she desperately clings to her neighbour, Giles, for help. He’s reluctant to get involved, scoffing at the thought of Elisa calling it a “he.”

“It’s not even human,” Giles yells down the hall at Elisa.
“If we don’t save him,” Elisa signs, “neither are we.”

Watch the trailer

Buy tickets for “The Shape of Water” now playing

Buy tickets for “At Home With Monsters” at the AGO

About the Author

Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.