GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) – Del Toro’s Latest—A Stop-motion Animation Extravaganza Combined with Impactful Script— Is One of His Best

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GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) works on so many different levels, it’s difficult to know where to start.

So, I guess I’ll start by saying this version of PINOCCHIO is definitely not just for kids, as the themes and story in this one are definitely aimed at adults, even though on the surface it remains a children’s story. That being said, even though it is rated PG, it is rather dark and in spots frightening, and so parents of younger children be forewarned. But for everyone else, enjoy!

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is now available on Netflix, which means you can watch this one from the comfort of your own home. It features exquisite stop-motion animation, and the word that comes to mind when describing it is clear. Everything in this movie looks so clear, clean, and precise. The feel of the animation hearkens back to the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials of the 1960s and 70s, vehicles like RUDOLPH THE RED- NOSED REINDEER (1964) and SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970), only it’s a gazillion times better, as if these Christmas specials were shot by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, or perhaps some other cinematic visionary, say like Guillermo del Toro. How about that?

The actors providing the voices all do first-rate jobs, which is no surprise when you have the likes of Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Ron Perlman, John Turturo, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and Christoph Waltz in your cast! Even the songs are memorable. But most of all, and by far my favorite part of this movie, even with its amazing animation, is its script by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale, based on the book Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Not only is the story it tells compelling, but it covers anti-war and anti-fascist themes, father/son relationships, and really and most importantly has a lot to say on what death means, and how important it is to love those around you while you have them, because life is so short, and then it’s gone.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO opens in World War I Italy where a woodcarver named Geppetto (David Bradley) lives a quiet happy life with his son Carlo (Alfie Tempest), but this happy time is cut short when a bomb falls from the sky, and Carlo is killed in the explosion. In the years that follow, Geppetto grieves and can’t move past his grief, wasting away as he yearns for nothing else but the return of his son. It’s at this time that the narrator of the story appears, the Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a self-described author who moves into the tree which had grown by Carlo’s grave in order to write his life story, but it’s at this point that Geppetto reaches an all-time low, and in a fit of drunken rage, decides that he’s sick and tired of his prayers not being answered, and he vows to take matters into his own hands. No, he doesn’t have a PET SEMATARY moment and dig up his son’s grave, but he does chop down the tree by the grave and uses the wood to build a puppet in the likeness of his son, but of course it is lifeless, and Geppetto collapses into a drunken stupor.

But as the Cricket observes, the Spirits take pity on Geppetto and decide to magically give the puppet life, and in a scene right out of FRANKENSTEIN, Geppetto awakes and is horrified to see the puppet, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) now alive and claiming to be his son. Pinocchio is jubilant to be alive and in one energetic outburst after another, runs about the house asking question upon question. Geppetto tries to control him and finally tells him to stay home while he goes to church, but Pinocchio wants to go to church and soon follows Geppetto there, even disobeying the Cricket who tries to teach him to listen to his father.

Inside the church, the churchgoers are horrified and cry out witchcraft at the sight of the talking puppet, and Geppetto whisks Pinocchio home. In a heated argument, Geppetto calls Pinocchio a burden, and heartbroken, the puppet runs away and joins the circus operated by the villainous Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile, Pinocchio has also attracted the attention of the Podesta (Ron Perlman), who sees great value in a wooden puppet who cannot die, and wants him to be part of the national army.

Eventually, Geppetto and the Cricket go off in search of Pinocchio, and in one of the more frightening sequences you’ll see in a PG animated movie, they are swallowed up by a massive sea creature, and they find themselves stuck inside the enormous belly of the beast. Left on his own, Pinocchio sees through the likes of Count Volpe and Podesta and learns that they are using him, and he decides that he must seek out his father and spend whatever time they have left together, setting the stage for an exciting rescue attempt.

On its surface, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is a highly entertaining and visually stunning animated adventure, and beneath the surface is a well-written theme-driven screenplay that knocks it out of the park with its anti-war sentiments and thoughts on life and death.

In one scene, Pinocchio is overjoyed and singing that he’s going off to war because it sounds life fun, and Geppetto tells him that war is not fun, that war is bad, that war took away Carlo from him. It’s a simple scene, and a simple piece of dialogue, but this one moment captures succinctly what this film is all about. War is not a good thing, and that’s an important message to be sure here in 2022, because wars are all around us. The United States alone has been involved in ongoing global conflicts since 2001. The world doesn’t know what it’s like not to be at war.

The film is just as clear with its anti-fascist and anti-nationalist messages, which are equally as important here in 2022 as these movements continue to gain strength around the world.

But the most telling and most resonating message of the movie is its take on death, how life is short, and how we need to enjoy life with those around us while we can. Geppetto grieves greatly over the loss of his son, and nearly loses his life in the years afterwards. At first, he can’t really open himself to accepting Pinocchio because his heart is still with Carlo, but he eventually listens to the advice of the Cricket who basically shouts at him to stop feeling sorry for himself and to accept Pinocchio for who he is. It’s a powerful moment in what the casual observer might dismiss as a children’s movie. This version of PINOCCHIO is much more than that.

And the way this one ends is such a sweet and on-target moment about how to deal with death, that it’s the perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

While this all sounds serious, the film still manages to be fun and upbeat. Most of the comic relief comes from the Cricket, voiced with empathy and gusto by Ewan McGregor. He gets a funny running gag throughout the movie, as every time he begins to sing a certain song about his own father, something dramatic happens and prevents his singing it. The film gets the humor right throughout.

Speaking of gusto, young Gregory Mann is absolutely amazing as Pinocchio. He has so much spirit and energy, and he makes this living, talking puppet completely convincing.

David Bradley is perfect as Geppetto, the father who grieves so much for his deceased son it nearly kills him, and as such it takes him a long time to accept Pinocchio. But he is there for the young puppet with words of wisdom and love that eventually make their mark on the wooden youth. Bradley is known to HARRY POTTER fans for playing Argus Filch in that series.

Christoph Waltz has a field day voicing the villainous Count Volpe, and it’s one of my favorite performances in the film. Ron Perlman is memorable as the Podesta, as is Finn Wolfhard as his increasingly sympathetic son, Candlewick.

Tilda Swinton does her thing as the magical Wood Sprite, who Pinocchio visits each time he “dies.” These sequences are otherworldly and magical, and take the movie to a whole different level.

You won’t hear Cate Blanchett’s voice because she voices the monkey Spazzatura, and so she only makes monkey sounds, but this character becomes very important in the story. Spazzatura spends most of the time as the slave to Count Volpe’s master, but as the monkey becomes closer to Pinocchio, things change.

And in a fun bit of casting, Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob Squarepants himself, voices Mussolini, in a very funny sequence where the Italian dictator arrives to watch Pinocchio perform.

One odd thing about this version of Pinocchio is the near absence of women in the story. Other than the Wood Sprite, there really isn’t another woman character to be found.

Guillermo del Tor has always made visually stunning movies, and the visuals he creates have always been my favorite part of his films. I have actually liked his films less than a lot of other folks have, as I have found that the storytelling in his movies hasn’t been up to par with their visual aspects, and as such, I’ve only been lukewarm to films like NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) and THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017). But this new version of PINOCCHIO doesn’t have this problem. Its screenplay is actually a strength.

And so, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, which he co-directed with Mark Gustafson, is now one of my favorite Guillermo del Toro movies.

It also features stop motion animation, which I always enjoy, and which has a long history going back to KING KONG (1933) and even before that, as Kong animator Willis O’Brien had animated movies before Kong. Years later O’Brien’s protege was Ray Harryhausen who would go on to become the undisputed king of stop motion movie animation, with films like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

After watching GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, there’s no doubt in my mind that Ray Harryhausen would have been proud.

I give it three and a half stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) – Visually Intriguing Remake Is Mostly for Guillermo del Toro Fans

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Well, I continue not to be a fan of director Guillermo del Toro.

And I say this with a great deal of respect, because visually, del Toro’s films are genuinely impressive. Trouble is, I just don’t like many of them, mostly because where he excels with the visual aspects of film, he struggles with the storytelling.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021), del Toro’s latest, released in cinemas back in December and now available on HBO Max, falls into this same category. Visually, the movie is a real treat. The story which takes place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with the first half set inside a travelling carnival, is beautifully shot, and the imagery is mesmerizing. The mix of vibrant and shadowy colors, the use of snow, blood, and carnival lights all add up to inspired cinematography. Del Toro’s imagery here is reminiscent of the works of Tim Burton.

But the story is far less inspired and ultimately fall short.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a remake of the classic NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) which starred Tyrone Power. It tells the story of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who when the film opens is seen burning a corpse and an entire house with it, and he then leaves in silence and eventually finds work at a carnival. He befriends Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) who once had a very successful mentalist act, during Pete’s younger days. Stanton learns the tricks of the trade and finds that he has a real talent for the mentalist act. He runs off with the young and lovely Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to start a life of their own, where they take their mentalist act on the road and begin to do exceedingly well.

Until they cross paths with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who puts them in touch with some powerful clients who are looking for individual help as they try to contact their dead loved ones. This is a line Stanton has been taught not to cross, that once someone wants deep personal help, it’s best to let them know it’s all an act, so they don’t get hurt, but the money these people will pay him is too much for him to ignore, and so he embarks on the dangerous path of conning some very powerful people into believing that he is indeed communicating with their deceased relatives.

In addition to its fabulous visuals, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is also blessed with an exceptional cast. Bradley Cooper is excellent as he always is, and he’s in nearly every frame of this movie. He takes Stanton Carlisle from mysterious stranger to eager carnival hand, to a successful mentalist at the top of his game to finally when he takes things too far, to a tragic figure, and he is convincing in all of these stages. While not as impressive as his work in A STAR IS BORN (2018) or AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) it’s still pretty good stuff and a solid reminder of how far Cooper has come from his days in THE HANGOVER movies, a comedy trilogy in which he was also excellent.

Rooney Mara is sincere as Molly Cahill, and is the one constant positive force in Stanton’s life, while Cate Blanchett makes Dr. Lilith Ritter a shady film noir femme fatale. Blanchett is fine here, but I enjoyed her more as the powerful TV host in DON’T LOOK UP (2021).

The stellar cast also includes Willem Dafoe as carnival head Clem Hoatley, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, and Holt McCallany.

The screenplay by del Toro and Kim Morgan, based on the novel by Lindsay Gresham, works up to a point. I thoroughly enjoyed the set-up, the stranger with the mysterious background who joins the carnival to finally fit in somewhere, but as the plot progresses, and Stanton grows more confident and takes his act on the road to hit it big, the intrigue dies down, mostly because none of the characters are fleshed out enough to make their contributions to the story worthwhile. And Stanton becomes a one trick pony after a while. Plus, the film is very, very long, clocking in at two hours and thirty minutes, and it feels like it. Shave off thirty minutes, and the movie probably works better.

As I said, visually the film is outstanding, and so del Toro fares better as a director here. There are some brilliantly conceived almost mesmerizing scenes, featuring merry go rounds, ferris wheels, and buildings with cold, labrynth-like hallways. There’s also plenty of blood and violence. And with its talented cast it has the makings of a winner, but sometimes these elements are not enough, and that’s the case here with NIGHTMARE ALLEY. The story falls flat long before the end credits roll.

I feel the same way even about some of del Toro’s celebrated hits, films like the Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), CRIMSON PEAK (2015), and even PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006). All of these films have winning visual styles, and all labored to tell a decent story. My favorite of del Toro’s films remains his HELLBOY movies.

If you are a fan of Guillermo del Toro, you will no doubt enjoy NIGHTMARE ALLEY much more than I did. But the rest of us, while we may be wowed by its vibrant onscreen artistry, will find sitting through two hours and thirty minutes of labored storytelling an arduous task at best.

At the end of the day, NIGHTMARE ALLEY isn’t much of a nightmare. It’s not even much of a bad dream. It’s just an alley, a very long alley with lots of offshoots that ultimately lead to nowhere.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

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You can’t ask for a better looking horror movie than CRIMSON PEAK (2015), Guillermo del Toro’s atmospheric ghost story flick.

Set in the early 20th century in both New York and later England, the sets, colors, costumes, and general look of the film have Hammer Films written all of them. Plus Tom Hiddleston in his period piece get-up does resemble Peter Cushing at times. And the lead character played by Mia Wasikowska is named Edith Cushing. Hmm… Okay, so, sure I’m a Hammer Film fan, but I certainly was thinking about Hammer Films while watching this one.

That being said, CRIMSON PEAK wouldn’t be a particularly very good Hammer Film, and that’s because as good as this one looks, it’s just not as impressive at telling its story. I saw CRIMSON PEAK at the movies upon its initial release and was cool to it then, and upon watching it again for the purposes of this review, I still am not that crazy about it.

The biggest reason is the story it tells doesn’t really wow me all that much. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) had a horrifying experience as a child with the ghost of her deceased mother. As an adult, Edith is an aspiring author living in Buffalo, New York, when she crosses paths with Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). The Sharpes have a business proposition for Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver), who is immediately troubled by the pair and doesn’t trust them, and so he turns down their proposal. Edith, however, is swept off her feet by Thomas and agrees to marry him, much to the chagrin of her good friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) who has been trying and failing to get Edith to date him.

Carter Cushing is then mysteriously and brutally murdered, but this doesn’t stop Edith from marrying Thomas and returning to England with him and Lucille to live in their haunted…. er, ancestral mansion. Once there, Edith once again begins to have strange encounters with overactive ghosts, and as it turns out, these encounters are the least of her problems.

The story told in CRIMSON PEAK is simply meh. I never bought into Edith’s plight, partly because Mia Wasikowska’s performance here never won me over. The skinny of it is Edith never comes to life for me as a character. So, that’s a major reason why this movie doesn’t work for me.

I also didn’t enjoy the love story between Edith and Thomas. They have about as much chemistry together as two adjacent floor boards. The ghost story I could see coming a mile away, and the sinister plot involving Thomas and his sister Lucille fell flat for me as well.

Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ screenplay goes through the motions but never evokes emotions.

Tom Hiddleston delivers the best performance in the movie as Thomas Sharpe. He at least brings his character to life and when he expresses his true feelings towards Edith he’s believable. Second to Hiddleston is Jim Beaver in a supporting role as Edith’s father Carter. He brings a strength and edge to the role, and his scenes are the most authentic in the movie, so it’s too bad he’s killed off midway through.

As I said, Mia Wasikowska never won me over as Edith. I just never believed her character was real. Jessica Chastain is pretty much one note as Lucille Sharpe— icy cold. And Charlie Hunnam, as enjoyable as he can be at times, also tends to be a one-note actor. Here, as Dr. Alan McMichael, he’s the noble best friend who will even travel to England to save the woman he secretly loves. Hunnam is fairly good, but you certainly don’t feel any real passion from the guy.

Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro. Visually, you can’t go wrong with his movies. They are always treats for the eyes. But his stories tend to need help. Even his much celebrated and Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) didn’t completely work for me. I much prefer his HELLBOY movies.

If you’re a fan of del Toro, you will enjoy CRIMSON PEAK. For the rest of us, it looks great, calls to mind the gothic horror films of both Hammer Films and Roger Corman’s 1960s Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe movies, but as a horror story, it goes through the motions but never strikes a chord.

CRIMSON PEAK colors but never peaks.

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SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019) – Takes Its Horror Tropes Seriously

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SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019), the new horror film based on the books Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Stories to Chill Your Bones (1991), all by Alvin Schwartz, hits all the right marks, especially if you’re a fan of traditional genre horror.

We’ve been fortunate in recent years to have seen a good number of highbrow artistic horror movies make their way through the cinemas, films like GET OUT (2017) and this year’s MIDSOMMAR (2019) for example, films that raise the bar and do more with horror than just revisit standard tropes.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is not one of these movies. Instead, it hearkens back to these standard tropes and then proceeds unapologetically to deliver the goods. There are decent scares throughout SCARY STORIES, mostly because it takes its subject matter seriously, in spite of the fact that the stories deal with the supernatural, scarecrows that come to life, undead corpses back for revenge, and creepy monsters from childhood nightmares. A lot of filmmakers would have taken this material and turned it into high camp. That’s not the case here. The stories are told in deadly earnest. I liked this.

Give credit to director Andre Ovredal. Not only does he craft some spine chilling scenes here, but better yet, he builds suspense. So many horror films I see these days surprisingly struggle with building suspense. They’re a series of scary scenes that fail to build into anything cohesive, leaving endings that simply fall flat. Ovredal avoids this pitfall by making each subsequent story scarier than the previous one, and with some effective editing, saves the best stuff for last. I really liked how this one was constructed.

Likewise, I loved the script by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, and Guillermo del Toro. It tells a gripping story with real characters and situations, in spite of the heavy dose of supernatural creatures. I also loved the dialogue.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK takes place in  the fall of 1968. While kids are gearing up for Halloween, the real world is dealing with the war in Vietnam and the election of Richard Nixon as president.  On Halloween, high school friends Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) decide to trick or treat one last time as the following year they’ll be off to college, but rather than candy, they’re more interested in pranking their school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). When that doesn’t go well, they flee from Tommy and his buddies and seek refuge in a car in a drive-in theater whose lone occupant is a teen Ramon Morales (Michael Garza) who’s not from town.

They become friends with Ramon, and since it’s Halloween decide to take him to their local haunted house, the Bellows House, where legend has it children had disappeared there. The story goes that years ago the influential Bellows family had a daughter named Sarah who they kept locked in a room, and who told visiting children horror stories through the walls, stories that would come true and claim the lives of the children.

Stella and her friends break into the abandoned house, and amazingly, they not only discover Sarah’s secret room, but the book with her stories, seemingly written in blood. Stella, who loves horror stories and writes them herself, takes the book with her, but it doesn’t take long for her to realize this was a bad idea, as she watches in disbelief as a story writes itself about one of her friends, and the next thing she knows that friend disappears.

Gulp!

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is completely predictable and doesn’t really present anything horror audiences haven’t seen before, but that doesn’t stop this movie from being scary and fun. And that’s because everything in this one is expertly handled and taken seriously.

The story where the scarecrow comes to life is as creepy as they come. I especially enjoyed the look of the scarecrow.  I also enjoyed the look of the other creatures in this one. Even though Guillermo del Toro only worked on the screenplay and didn’t direct this movie, the various creatures here have del Toro written all over them.

The young cast also acquit themselves quite nicely. Zoe Margaret Colletti is excellent in the lead role as Stella, as is Michael Garza as the young stranger in town, Ramon Morales. I also enjoyed Gabriel Rush as Auggie and Austin Zajur as Chuck. Austin Abram was also memorable as bully Tommy.

A couple of veteran actors round out the cast. Dean Norris plays Stella’s father, and Gil Bellows plays the local police chief.

And don’t let the fact that SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is based on a collection of children’s horror stories fool you. This is the real deal. Sure, it’s rated PG-13, and so it’s not a heavy hitting R rated horror flick.  But it is a well-written, directed, and acted horror treat.

And yes, its supernatural elements really aren’t all that believable, but because everyone in this one both in front of and behind the camera took it seriously, that doesn’t really seem to matter. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK really works, from beginning to end. And it even sets itself up for a sequel and does so in a way that makes perfect sense and is not based on some silly tacked on ending where the monster suddenly jumps back to life. There really isn’t anything silly about SCARY STORIES.

I went into SCARY  STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK not really expecting much, but I left the theater pleasantly surprised.

I highly recommend SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. It’s one of my favorite horror movies of the year so far.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) – Exceptional Love Story Mired by Meandering Plot, Characters

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I had heard and read very good things about THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), the new movie by writer/director Guillermo del Toro, and since the inspiration behind del Toro making this movie was CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), one of my all-time favorite horror movies, I was eager to see this one, and admittedly, I had high expectations for it.

Sadly, those expectations were not met.

THE SHAPE OF WATER tells a poignant love story.  Mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) makes the best of her uneventful life in 1962 Baltimore.  She enjoys a sweet friendship with her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man struggling with his own aging process and who can’t hold a job, due as we learn later to a drinking problem, but he is tender and caring towards Elisa.  When she leaves her apartment, she’s off to work as a janitor at a secret government laboratory, where her friend and fellow cleaner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) looks out for her.

When Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) he captured in the waters of South America and houses it in the part of the lab Elisa cleans, she finds herself instantly drawn to the creature and soon begins secretly meeting with it, as she quickly discovers that it is highly intelligent and can communicate with her.  Since both she and the creature are mute, they immediately bond with each other, so much so, that in the classic Beauty and the Beast tradition, they fall in love.

This creative love story is the main story told in THE SHAPE OF WATER, and it’s the one that works.  Everything about the relationship between Elisa and the creature worked for me, and it’s the best part of THE SHAPE OF WATER.  But it’s everything else about this movie, from its supporting characters to its subplots that I found seriously lacking, and as such, dragged this movie down several notches.

One of the reasons the love story works so well is the tender performance by Sally Hawkins as Elisa.  Even before she meets the creature, Elisa is a likable character, from the way she interacts with her friend Giles to the way she does her job.  And when she connects with the creature, it’s a natural connection since in spite of her bright disposition, she still feels alone, without someone to love.  More so, when suddenly the feelings between Elisa and the creature become deeper, I completely bought into the relationship, mostly because Sally Hawkins’ performance convinced me her feelings were genuine.

It’s an impressive performance by Hawkins, especially since she plays a character who cannot speak.  She is probably the most expressive of any character in the movie. She’s certainly the most memorable character, and her performance is the best part of the movie.

The other reason the love story works is the writing by screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. The idea of taking an amphibious/human hybrid creature and showing off its intelligent and emotional side rather than turning it into just another movie monster, is a good one and one that I applaud.  I enjoyed the Amphibian Man here, and I was completely into the love story between this creature and Elisa.  Both the concept and the writing was refreshing and thought-provoking. My only wish is that they would have taken it even further and allowed us to learn even more about this mysterious creature from the sea.

And the Amphibian Man looks cool as well.  However, as played by Doug Jones, I was certainly reminded of a very similar character Jones played in another Guillermo del Toro movie, Abe Sapien in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008).  The Amphibian Man here is clearly reminiscent of Abe Sapien, and so as much as I liked his look, it’s not entirely original.

Jones makes his living playing creatures and aliens, as he also played The Bye Bye Man in the dreadful horror movie THE BYE BYE MAN (2017), as well as the ghoul in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), among others.  He currently stars as Saru in the latest Star Trek TV show, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), again hidden under extensive make-up.  Jones is fine as the Amphibian Man, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before.

But the rest of THE SHAPE OF WATER simply didn’t work for me.  Neither the rest of the characters or storylines drew me in.

Michael Shannon’s villain Colonel Richard Strickland is far too one-dimensional to be convincing.  He’s your standard military bad guy.  Even scences showing him at home with his wife and kids do nothing to lighten his Neegan-like portrayal of a vicious, close-minded bully.

Now, Richard Jenkins’ Giles was a character that I did like, but the story spends far too much time on his back story, when he’s simply not as integral to the main plot as Elisa. During the first half of the movie, a lot of time is spent on his visits to a diner, because he’s attracted to the young man working there, and we follow him as he tries to get his job back.  The point seems to be to show that like Elisa he’s a fellow outcast, but the story tends to meander off the main path and would have been better served to remain focused on Elisa and the creature. When the focus is on them, the movie is much more compelling.

Which brings me to the story. As much as liked the screenplay when it relayed the story of Elisa and the Amphibious Man, I found myself scratching my head about its other choices. The presence of Octavia Spencer in the role of Elisa’s friend Zelda immediately brought to mind Spencer’s work in THE HELP (2011) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two superior films which dealt with racism.

THE SHAPE OF WATER also plays the race card, but only superficially.  We see Octavia Spencer’s character dealing with it, and we also see a couple of other scenes showing prevalent racist attitudes in 1962.  The point again seems to be that the cruelty which villain Richard Strickland shows the Amphibian Man wasn’t specific to rare aquatic creatures but to fellow humanity.  But in this movie these scenes seem so out of place, I think mostly because one thing we do not see is Elisa’s reaction to them.  It’s not part of her story, here.

Likewise, since it’s the height of the Cold War, Soviet spies are actively trying to steal U.S. secrets and are very interested in stealing the Amphibian Man from the Americans, and so we are introduced to as it turns out a sympathetic Soviet scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who, like Elisa, finds himself wanting to help the creature rather than turn it over to his Soviet contacts.  But these scenes don’t really work either. Like the other subplots, they seem out of place and take away from the movie’s main focus, the love story.

I know this will sound like sacrilege to a lot of movie fans, but I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work.  I loved both his HELLBOY movies, but for me, that’s about it. Even his well-regarded PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006) didn’t do a whole lot for me. So, in a way, I’m not really surprised I didn’t love THE SHAPE OF WATER.  I’m just not a fan of the way del Toro tells a story.

That being said, the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man is touching and extremely well-done.  It’s everything else in this movie that doesn’t really work for me.

To make the love story here the centerpiece of the movie, the supporting characters and story should be built around this main story in order to support it, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, the other characters and storylines seem out of place and do nothing but distract from the main and much better love story in the film.

As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a mixed bag.

Its love story is exceptional. If only the rest of the movie had been the same.

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