Movies take us places we may never visit, transport us to times we may not experience, and introduce us to people we may never encounter. Though most moving pictures rely on dialogue to reveal their narratives, film remains, essentially, a visual medium where images tell stories and faces define characters.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is as beautiful a movie as you may find. The director’s view reimagines what we can expect from a film experience. Yes, the movie has a story and, yes, that story is filled with interesting people. And a creature. But when the tale ends we remember the images the camera captures. The director transports us to a world we do not want to leave.

That world is, actually, the United States at the height of the Cold War in 1962 (although a few 1963 model automobiles sneak into street scenes). A lady named Elisa, who does not speak, lives an ordered life in an apartment above a grand movie theater, next door to a lonely man struggling to find work as an illustrator. At night, she makes her sack lunch before heading to a secretive government location to clean the facility. One night, Elisa observes the arrival of a mysterious creature from a faraway river in a foreign land. She soon begins to realize this unlikely object may be what she needs to connect with a world where she seldom feels she belongs.

The plot may remind you of the 1950s-classic sci-fi flick Creature from the Black Lagoon or Steven Spielberg’s ET from the 1980s. Director del Toro wisely plays on our movie memories in the creature’s look — part human, part animal — and his need for water to survive. That sets up a fundamental challenge in his relationship with Elisa. If he needs water, and she lives on land, how can they connect?

While the film follows this basic narrative, it becomes something more thanks to the creativity of del Toro’s camera. For the director, the script becomes a framework to explore a stylized view of 1962 complete with vivid colors, muted lighting and tidy settings. When the camera must travel below water, del Toro responds with sequences that defy convention, creating atmosphere that reaches beyond how filmmakers usually visualize this part of the world. By daring to tell a conventional story in such a stylized manner, del Toro reminds us that, while the narrative may frame the film experience, the visual defines that experience.

Sally Hawkins brings rich facial expressions to her silent performance, letting us into her world without relying on traditional dialogue. Her comfort in the role makes us totally at ease with how much she communicates without spoken words. Richard Jenkins brings a sense of warmth to the neighbor while Octavia Spencer delivers her unique blend of sass and passion as Elisa’s best friend.

When the film ends, we remember the images. Director del Toro takes us to places we may never visit, to connect with beings we may never know. And his film is a total joy.

Film Nutritional Value: The Shape of Water

  • Content: High. Director Guillermo del Toro creates a fascinating look at how beings from different places look for redemption in feelings they share.
  • Entertainment: High. What a welcome relief to absorb a thoughtful, meaningful film that dares to tell a universal story in such a creative way.
  • Message: High. While absorbing as a film, The Shape of Water has a lot to say about how people choose what matters.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with our older children about how we confront choices and feelings is time well spent.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, take time for a conversation about how they see the choices they make.

The Shape of Water is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language. The film runs 2 hours, 3 minutes. 5 Popcorn Buckets.

The African Queen celebrates the Shape of Water, too

By Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

Meeting new people (or creatures) can be a real adventure.

As Sally Hawkins learns in The Shape of Water, each time we dare to reach out to someone or something we don’t know we may experience something new.

That’s one reason The African Queen gives us so much to talk about. The other is that the movie takes place in a jungle in the middle of Africa and involves a great escape from a powerful enemy. Not all that different from The Shape of Water. Except for the creature.

Picture a small village in the middle of the wilderness in German East Africa, in 1914, as the Germans and the British fight in World War I. As the film starts, the Germans burn a missionary outpost and leave its minister to clean up the damage. After he dies from exhaustion, his sister realizes her only way to safety is to navigate a frightening jungle river. But the only available traveling companion is a down-on-his-luck boat captain who drinks too much and impresses her too little.

At first, these two opposite souls do not get along. He is coarse; she is refined. He is cynical; she is optimistic. He avoids politics; she wants to get into the middle of the fight. When she suggests the two of them try to sink an enemy gunboat, he thinks she’s crazy. But he is fascinated that a woman can be this strong, this determined. As director John Huston lets the relationship simmer, the captain becomes enamored by his passenger’s persistence as she grows impressed by his bravery. Together, they fight off an attack from a fortress, risk drowning in the rapids, and survive threats by water animals and bugs. Most important, they learn to look beyond first impressions to learn how to trust each other.

Of course, The African Queen is too smart a film to let such important lessons get in the way of fun. Huston never slows the action to deliver a message or dilutes the adventure for the sake of a moral. Instead he uses the natural setting to authentically observe how two people learn that each has more to offer than they think possible. The director takes time to let the relationship evolve, never rushing the characters to commit more than what seems right for the moment.

Adding to this authenticity is Huston’s decision to take the cast and crew to shoot most of the film on location in a real jungle in Africa. This simply didn’t happen in the early 1950s when most films were made within the protected walls of Hollywood studios. Huston knew, to get the film he wanted, he had to go where the story would take place. This reality gives the film a natural energy that adds urgency to the relationship.

Imagine, for a moment, you see this film for the first time in 1951. As the credits roll, you sense something special is about to begin. And, when you discover you this is Africa, you know you will travel to a place you have probably never experienced.

I may never meet a creature from a jungle river. But, thanks to The Shape of Water, I feel I have. Likewise, I may never get to travel down a jungle river. But, thanks to The African Queen, I feel I have been there. Let’s talk about it.

The African Queen, released in 1951, would be rated PG for “thematic elements, some violence and smoking”. It runs 1 hour, 45 minutes, and is available for online streaming.