Onward (2020)

Directed by: Dan Scanlon Written by: Scanlon, Keith Bunin and Jason Headley

Onward_posterPrior to seeing Onward I saw brief interviews with its writer-director Dan Stanlon. Scanlon spoke of how the film was inspired by his own relationship with his brother and father. He then called Pixar a special company, because it takes chances on “real” stories such as his own.  On the one hand it is easy to see why Scanlon would say this: imagine getting the opportunity to turn one of your defining life-stories into a mass-watched fantasy epic! 

On the other hand, Scanlon’s one-liner about Pixar’s uniqueness is revisionist history. It erases what has actually made the studio iconic. In my review of Toy Story 4 I argued there were two distinct eras of Pixar filmmaking: Toy Story-to-Ratatouille and Wall-E-to-the-present. The key distinction between these eras is that Wall-E, along with some of the films that followed it, is almost too depressing to be a family movie.

Alternatively, one could argue that it was Ratatouille that started the modern Pixar era. Ratatouille is an inventive and funny family film. Unlike Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, it doesn’t beg for an Oscar via tear-jerker moments. Nonetheless, Ratatouille’s formula differs in a key way from earlier Pixar films. Prior to Ratatouille, Pixar made movies based around concrete categories: toys, bugs, monsters, sea-creatures, superheroes and cars. Rataoutille may star rats, but it is not a “rat” movie. Unlike the Toy Story films, which deal with the toy-specific problems of “realness” and “obsolescence,” Rataoutille’s story is a human tale, albeit one with rodent characteristics.

Onward is a Ratatouille-style Pixar film. While it is nominally about fantasy creatures, its stars are highly anthropomorphic, and their struggles largely transcend their Elvin identities. The film explains that the same technologies that we enjoy became available in its fantasy realm. Because magic is supposedly difficult to use, the arrival of electricity, cars, etc rendered it obsolete. 

Onward is also a clear product of the Wall-E era (though unlike the older movie, Onward is unequivocally kid friendly). Sadness is introduced to the film right away as we are introduced to brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is celebrating his sixteenth birthday, and on the occasion is reminded of the absence of his deceased father. 

The plot takes off as Ian and Barley’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents the boys with a gift left behind by their father: a magic staff. The staff contains a spell to temporarily resurrect the father, but a shortcoming in the spell’s execution sends the boys off on a road-trip in search of further magic. 

The character of Barley is one of the film’s strongpoints. A Dungeons & Dragons nerd, and civilly-disobedient protector of magical-heritage-buildings, Barley has nuance as a character. While his hobbies make him seem like your traditional, goofball sidekick, he is in fact a fairly competent young-man. Unfortunately, his conservative-suburban society is biased against his particular competences. Pixar has produced a good-roster of sidekick-protagonists over the years: Buzz Lightyear, Mike Wazowski, Dory and Sadness, but with Barley, Scanlon and his co-writers came up with a memorably subversive way to deploy the sidekick role. 

Less compelling for me, however, was Ian. Onward, in the broadest sense, shares a narrative formula with Finding Nemo. Both stories are rooted in the death of a young parent. Both are road-trip movies. And both road trips pair a worry-wart protagonist with a goofy sidekick. But this is where the difference between pre-Ratatouille and post-Ratatouille Pixar comes in. Finding Nemo is rooted in the category of “sea-creatures.” As such, its parental death is specific to the marine context. Viewers are lulled into a wonderful-life under the sea, but then made to live through a sea-specific-specific danger as it takes its terrible toll. Finding Nemo’s protagonist Marlin is shaped by an obvious trauma, and we viewers share in that trauma. 

Onward by contrast is not a film whose narrative pieces all come from a category. While pre-Wall-E Pixar films can have sad moments, Onward set out to be sad from the get go. It has no scene that compares to Nemo’s barracuda moment. Instead, it just has expository dialogue where Ian and his Mom tell us how they feel, and consequently how the movie would like viewers to feel.  This discrepancy continues throughout the films’ runs. While Marlin develops due to a combination of friendship, quirky luck and genuine learning, all of which stem naturally from his aquatic-context, Ian is regularly set up with situations where it is overtly stated that he just has to “believe in himself” or otherwise do the right thing.

Onward is a cautionary tale of how deriving a fictional-universe from emotions and ideas, instead of doing it the other way around, can make those ideas come across as predictable and plot-stunting. Toy Story found its depth, not by repeating familiar platitudes of human sentimentality, but through exploring the theoretical anxieties of plastic beings. A Bug’s Life, meanwhile, is a great example of a “we are the 99%” fable, because it doesn’t force that message on viewers. Rather builds to it as it observes the collectivist yet conservative dynamics within an ant-colony. 

On the other hand, Onward is undoubtedly a wonderfully imaginative film, and there are some interesting ideas in its core plot. Critical as I am of the way Ian’s self-doubt and sadness are portrayed, at very least, the epiphany he has at the film’s climax is a clever one. Hopefully Pixar can remember what made its early films classics, and return to this formula in the future. Onward may be a stumbling block in that regard, but its celebration of benevolent-nerdiness and nostalgia at very least makes it worth the watch.  

Dolittle (2019)

Directed by: Stephen Gaghan 

Written by: Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand

Dolittle_(2020_film_poster)I keep finding myself going to films that the critics don’t want me to see. First I saw the beloved Cats  and this time I went for Dolittle, with its even lower, 15% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike with Cats, I did not go into Dolittle wanting/kind-of-believing the critics would be drastically wrong: I just didn’t want to give up on the idea that Iron Man talking to animals would be a good time. 

While Dr. Dolittle has his origins in a now century-old book series, my knowledge of the character comes solely from Eddie Murphy movies that I watched too long ago to remember. For those in a similar position, this new iteration of Dolittle offers a reasonably different viewing experience. Unlike Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr.’s Dolittle is not a contemporary, American doctor, but an eccentric, Victorian Welshman (and whether you like the performance or not, its clear at least that Downey Jr made a point of not being a Tony Stark-clone). While this may not be an exciting decision for those familiar with the Dolittle novels or Rex Harrison’s 1967 portrayal, the Victorianness of Dolittle undoubtedly provides for a different sensory experience than that of Murphy’s comedy. Dolittle’s story takes him from his charming, yet under-maintained household, to Buckingham palace and then to the high seas. While the story is not a satire in the literal sense of the word (unless I’m missing something), it does brim with parodic energy. 

It is easy to see why critics don’t care for Dolittle. For one, the story is structured around the forced-heart-warmingness of a boy (Harry Collett) discovering Dolittle, and, at ridiculous speed learning, the man’s skill of talking to animals, and inspiring him to come out of retirement. In addition to this thematic genericness, the film also banks on the idea of having comedic characters (Dolittle’s animal gang), that are not well developed, but instead have one-gag personalities that occasionally lend themselves to crudeness. While the celebrity (Emma Thompson, John Cena, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Jason Mantzoukas,  Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard) voiced animals are a clear example of Hollywood trying to cut corners to get to humor, there’s nonetheless a visual beauty to the animals’ photorealistic animation, within the context of Dolittle’s historic, seaside world. Just as real-life puppies don’t need comedic talent to be endlessly entertaining, you can enjoy the fun of seeing an ostrich and polar bear manning a ship, even if their personalities don’t quite resonate with you. Furthermore, I for one found the way in which the quasi-evil tiger was presented was reasonably unique.

There’s no denying Dolittle’s creative  imits, but its particularly bad reputation is not justified. That 15% score is a product of a) how critics seem to have a weird obsession with exaggerating their dislike for “stinkers” and b) Rotten Tomatoes’ binary Fresh/Rotten system leading movies of roughly the same quality to have wildly different scores (I could easily see a film, very much like Doolittle, coming out in a few months and getting something in the 60s). Doolittle’s silliness-on-the-seas structure gives it the air, if not the quality, of films like Muppet Treasure Island. This affect is further embellished by the emergence of a celebrity-portrayed anti-hero at the film’s midpoint, and an eccentric, yet fitting twist in the third act (that some spoiler-prone critics don’t seem to understand is meant to be a surprise). One can debate how much imagination went into Dolittle, but for those wishing to have their own imaginations stimulated: those wishing to travel back in time, with colorful animal sidekicks it is undoubtedly a charming romp.

The 92nd Academy Award Nominations: A Response

A year ago I wrote my first response to the Oscar nomination results. In my introduction I observed two things: my frustration that certain films didn’t get nominated, as well as my mixed feelings about the very concept of awards. This year little has changed. While two of the year’s best represented Oscar films Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story are actually amongst my favorites, it is still hard for me not to notice frustrating patterns in what does and doesn’t make the cut. For instance, is Jojo Rabbit actually markedly better than Taika Waititi’s past work, or is it just because he’s backed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and cast Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson in place of lesser-known New Zealander actors that the Academy decided he’s finally worth paying attention to?

But as with last year, my cynicism about the very idea of ranking movies, let alone following an over-celebrated award show of limited scope, is topped by my eagerness to participate in a discussion about film, so without further ado…

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

In 2017 I wrote of the absurdity of Willem Dafoe getting the only acting nomination amongst the cast of The Florida Project despite writer-director Sean Baker’s commitment to showcasing amateur talents. My feelings about Scarlett Johansson getting the only acting nomination amongst the cast of Jojo Rabbit are similar.

Alas, not only does the Oscars seem to have a bias against nominating non-famous people, but it also seems to have a bias against nominating comedic actors. I would thus like to highlight Taika Waititi’s worthiness for the Best Actor in a Supporting Role award. 

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Taika Waititi gets my nod for his role in Jojo Rabbit…sort of

Waititi’s role which, due to being a figment of a child’s imagination, both does and doesn’t resemble the real Adolph Hitler, is undoubtedly a unique one and is brought to life via Waititi’s unique comic voice.

I hesitate a bit with this pick since it can be argued that Waititi’s goofy-Hitler role did not particularly push his acting skills to the limit. That said, it is not unheard of for Oscars to implicitly be given based on a cumulation of works (before they finally won, Martin Scorsese and Leonard DiCaprio were marked with buzz of, “will this finally be the year?”) Taika Waititi’s strongest acting came in his second film, Boy, in which he plays a goofy, yet-hardened absentee father. There’s notably a scene in Boy in which Waititi reveals a hidden swastika he stuck to the wall, before awkwardly telling his son, “don’t get into that Nazi stuff.” Given this intertextual relationship between the two films, I see no issue in using Jojo Rabbit as the opportunity to honor Waititi for his cumulative acting work.

Other notable supporting performances this year include Will Smith’s lively Genie from Aladdin, and Kevin Garnett’s uniquely serious portrayal of “himself” in Uncut Gems.

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

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Octavia Spencer in Luce

It feels weird to begrudge the Oscars for ignoring Octavia Spencer. When she was nominated for playing a generic best-friend role in The Shape of Water two years ago, I couldn’t help but the feel the Academy had decided she was one of the people they were supposed to nominate by default (while ignoring less famous actors in the process). That said, this year Octavia Spencer starred in what could be the year’s most underrated release: Luce. Luce uniquely blends substantive social commentary, with the moral ambiguity of horror/thriller movies, and Spencer, in her passionate portrayal of a disciplinarian, yet socially-conscious teacher, provides a key component of that film’s immense emotional weight.

Returning to the problem of the Oscars ignoring “less famous” actors, one of the shocks of the season was seeing no nomination go to any member of The Farewell’s cast. While a lot of attention has rightly been paid to the film’s central Grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), I found the role that required the most nuance in the film was that of the protagonist Billie’s mother, portrayed by Diana Lin. The character, on the one hand, is the most representative of the “family-that-doesn’t-understand,” yet Lin and the script draw a nice balance by the portraying the mother as never quite as strict as Billie expects her to be.

Other memorable “supporting actress” performances include Uncut Gems’ newfound star Julia Fox, whose character shift midway through the story gives the chaotic film its “meaning,” and Chloe Sevigny, whose vulnerability adds important emotional variety to Jim Jarmusch’s not-for-everybody-deadpan-zombie-movie The Dead Don’t Die.

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

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Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Luce

I’ve said it a million times on this blog, but as far as I’m concerned Kelvin Harrison Jr. is cinema’s biggest breakout star of 2019. In Luce he balanced vulnerability with terrifying moral ambiguity, serving as Octavia Spencer’s foil. In Waves he plays a similar, yet-markedly-different role as a character who has no horror-movie traits, yet finds himself in a horrifying situation. That neither of these movies earned Harrison a nomination is, in my mind, the best argument for imposing requirements that academy members who don’t see a certain percentage of the year’s releases lose their voting rights.

Another interesting candidate, who fell victim to not-famous (in America) bias is Parasite’s Song Kang-Ho. Song plays a character who superficially resembles the goofy-tv dad trope, yet is enough of a thinker to ascend to being one of his film’s key moral players (for better or for worse). 

I would be remiss not to mention Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Joker, even if that’s one that has not flown under the Academy’s radar. Phoenix had to take on the challenges of turning cartoon traits into realistic ones, portraying a figure who is simultaneously weak and powerful, and embodying a character who loses his moral senses but never his sense of morality. Adam Sandler’s snub for Uncut Gems, meanwhile, while not an example of “not-famous” bias, might as well be the same thing. While film fans and auteurs might have been thrilled to see Sandler and Garnett show their potential as dramatic actors, it seems the Academy would rather people know their places. Finally, while I’ll stand by my view that the Academy should avoid nominating kids for their own mental well being, its hard to ignore Roman Griffin Davis’s performance as Jojo in Jojo Rabbit, his diverse array of emotions always on point (his co-star Archie Yates, would also be a good fit in the supporting category but-for anti-comedy bias).

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE 

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Kaityln Dever in Booksmart

Booksmart may be an over-the-top comedic film, but its resonance with me has always been for its realness. Kaitlyn Dever’s performance as Amy is the film’s  most realistic element. While “geek” films are often populated by characters who simply seem to be outcast frat-boys, Dever’s mild-mannered, yet charismatically awkward portrayal finally breaks that mold.

Park So-Dam meanwhile, delivered one of the year’s most memorable lines: “Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago.” Immortalized simply in Parasite’s trailer those words take a new meaning on screen, as Park stars as a cool, gifted-schemer, who at the right moments, nonetheless shows her vulnerability as a child/very-young adult.

While I think Her Smell made a mistake in over-centering itself on one of its characters, that mistake came with benefits. Elisabeth Moss’s portrayal of a troubled-rock star is highlighted by her friendly demeanor, and has a unique power to it given that, contrary to the tropes, the character she portrays is not necessarily a huge star and is also (to state the obvious) a woman.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

The easy choice here is The Lighthouse (Jarin Blaschke), a film whose appeal is that it presents as a series of black and white photographs populated by the comedically dressed Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. I suppose my hesitancy with this one is simply the question of how much of its beauty simply owes to its being black and white? (And if I were to catastrophize, could the over-celebration of The Lighthouse result in too many films being made in black and white, thus ruining the novelty of the effect?).

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Woman at War

Anyway, I’m not going to make a forced choice here. Cinematography was almost cut from the Oscars in the recent past, so I feel compelled to acknowledge it, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Amongst other strong cinematographic choices this year was the non-noirness of Jojo Rabbit (Mihai Mălaimare Jr.), the use of bright colors in ordinary settings in Pain and Glory (José Luis Alcaine), the combination of surreal, high-tech, and retro-grayness in Ad Astra (Hoyte van Hoytema), the combination of mythic art with rural expanses in Midsommar (Pawel Pogorzelski), the celebration of Iceland’s mossy hills in Woman at War (Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson), and the naively lulling shots of color tinged water in Waves (Drew Daniels).

BEST CHILDREN’S FILM

Every year I say it: “best animated picture” is a bad category. My view, is that as the one award which will have nominees that children will care about, that this award should always go to a children’s film. That said, this leaves no niche for brilliant animation not aimed at young viewers. The Academy seemingly agrees with me. Thus, the oil-painted Loving Vincent was nominated but not awarded, while my favorite animated film of this year, the cubist, alt-heist movie Ruben Brandt: Collector has been ignored by the Academy entirely.

Brandt aside, this was a good year for animated movies, even as it was rife with sequels. How to Train Your Dragon 3 featured excellent inter-character dynamics. Toy Story 4 successfully extended its series’ philosophical journey, mitigating some of the disappointment that it wasn’t the change-of-pace rom-com it was once promised to be. Finally, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part continued the strong visual precedent set by its predecessors while also finding ways to extend its universe’s moral exploration and giving star Chris Pratt a surprisingly interesting voice acting assignment.

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Frozen 2

But if I had to pick a “best” out of this strong field, I’d go with Frozen II. While its hard to see Disney as an underdog, in this case, Jennifer Lee told what, for her industry, was a new kind of story: one that centred an indigenous people’s relationship to the land around them, in place of typical fairy-tale/hero’s journey plot arc dynamics. More importantly, Frozen II challenged the notion that children’s films have to be unhappy to be profound (that’s my gripe with Toy Story 4, and to a lesser extent, with the entire second generation of Pixar’s output). Frozen II shows that justice need not be something to fear. That coupled with its beautiful animation and its success in giving character depth to its goofy-snowman-sidekick, make this Oscar snub worthy of more recognition.

BEST SCREENPLAY

I don’t always feel comfortable engaging with the best screenplay and best directing categories. Directing especially, without a film insider’s eye, feels like an impossible characteristic to separate from the overall quality of the film. Similarly, I have a hard time imagining there being a year where my favorite film is not also my favorite film script.

That said, there are few Hollywood

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Noah Baumbach

screenwriters like Noah Baumbach.  Aside from the fact that they tend to have successful artistic careers, his protagonists tend to be fairly ordinary people, whose dramas rarely ascend to the levels of action, horror or magic. To endear his mundane protagonists, Baumbach has had to learn to write with realist precision, giving the limited drama that does come out in his work its full emotional weight. With Marriage Story I think Baumbach has achieved about as much drama as his style can. It may not be my favorite movie of the year, but it comes close,  

BEST DIRECTOR

Again, I find the task of “separating” best the_big_circle_090ed8587890f82494ba0fb6aff18412director and “best picture absurd,” but since I’m also not one who loves picking favorites, I have no problem with picking two bests. Diamantino has an unpredictable and witty story, but co-writers Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt also saw to it that the film included emotionally resonant performance and some of the year’s most eccentric visuals. While the film was on the studio circuit in 2018, I count it as a 2019 film given that it didn’t make it to my local (Montréal) theatres until late April 2019. And of course, it doesn’t seem like the Academy gave this underrated masterpiece much consideration in either year. 

BEST PICTURE (TBA)…

Luce (2019)

Directed by: Julius Onah Written by: Onah and J.C. Lee

Luce_film_poster.jpg            I knew next to nothing going into Luce, about the film I was set to see. Perhaps that’s the best way to go into the movie. The film tells the story of the relationship between an adopted black high-school student named Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and his history teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), and it is absolutely not the movie many will expect to see given the premise I presented.

One might expect Luce to be an “identity” movie. Luce has a knack for giving speeches, setting up viewers to expect him to simply comment on how his personal and collective experiences are shaped by race. A strong, but conventional example of this trope is illustrated in Dope, in which Shameik Moore’s character speaks to the cultivation of nerd identity in a low-income, racialized neighbourhood. A key difference between Dope and Luce, however, is that Luce’s theme is too complex, perhaps too abstract, for any single speech to capture it.

Luce’s poster presents the film as having four main characters. This presentation is more or less accurate, though its also a reference to these characters all being played by famous actors; Harrison and Spencer are joined by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, who plays Luce’s parents. Right away, the story’s opaqueness shapes how we see these figures. In an early scene Luce’s father suggests that Ms. Wilson is a “b*tch,” while his mother, cautious to dampen any sexism in her household, suggests that they use the word “stern” instead. While Wilson is certainly a stickler about some rules, her initial presentation in the film does not stand out as stern. Octavia Spencer’s default demeanour seems to be a friendly one, and it’s a demeanour she carries into her portrayal of Ms. Wilson. This is not poor acting on Spencer’s part: rather it is a choice designed to cast doubt on Luce and his family’s description of her character. Luce features other characters (Luce’s friends played by Brian Bradley, Noah Gaynor, Omar Brunson and Andrea Bang) who are not as prominent as the poster-four, but nonetheless are given scenes that tease they could be main characters. The “inconsistent” use of these figures, further contributes to Luce‘s unique and powerful commitment to narrative ambiguity.

Not knowing what to believe is an essential part of Luce’s fabric, and while I can’t say more about it without spoiling a movie whose structure relies on the gradual revelation of fact, I can point out that Luce’s opaqueness is what makes it distinct from other “identity” films. Issues of race, gender, mental health, family status and age all come up in the film, but rather than being fit into a fable that pits the more against the less-privileged, Luce creates dramatic confrontations between people with multi-layered, marginalized identities out of which no truth or outcome is desirable. An while at least one character, Luce’s mother, makes it through the movie without showing any significant flaws, her perceived or actual role as a ham-fisted-white-savior is hinted at enough, to successfully draw her into the film’s moral matrix of mystery. Ultimately, therefore, Luce does not so much offer a political lesson, but rather challenges the brain to go through uncomfortable, political thought processes.

A lot of indie movies can be mysterious, particularly when it comes to their endings. In the case of some of these films, the mysteriousness can be read as an artfully disguised weakness: the auteur does not know what they’re saying, so they swap ideas for aesthetics. Luce is a fairly clearcut example, however, where this mysteriousness is not a weakness, but a strong, perhaps the best, approach. The idea of a work of art “making you think” is a cliché, and a misapplied one. Films that spoon-feed you a message may make you learn, but it is really only films like Luce, however, that make you think.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro. Written by: del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)Guillermo del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters. This fascination is not a simple aesthetic desire to create novel looking beings: rather they symbolize “the other” as in those we do not see as part of respectable, human society. He cites, for example, Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, as an influence of his: a film that tells the stories of “circus freaks” from a sympathetic perspective.

This theme is readily apparent in The Shape of Water a story of Eliza Esposito, a mute janitor in the 50s who develops a relationship with a humanesque marine creature (Doug Jones) who is held captive at her workplace. Eliza (Sally Hawkins), explains her empathy for the creature by citing her own marginalized status. Meanwhile, the film’s antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon) is a US government agent who speaks in thinly veiled racist and sexist dogwhistles.

Thematically, therefore, The Shape of Water is a bit plain-stated. The film’s aesthetic, however, goes a long way towards making it a memorable work. The film is decidedly green. Eliza punches in a green time card (with help from her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to go into her green dungeon of a building, where she cleans green-tiled bathrooms with bubble-like wells of green soap. While the exact meaning of the color is somewhat ambiguous, visually it serves to make Eliza’s life look much like the creature’s: she too is submerged in murky, green depth. It should be noted here, that there is nuance to this connection. Showing Eliza in the shadowy green depths of her work helps create the impression she is drowning (while by contrast the creature of course needs to be in water).

Del Toro could have opted for his green aesthetic to be a mere mood setter, something many viewers might simply process unconsciously. Instead, however, he works the word “green” into his scripts. Giles, Eliza’s friend and neighbour, lovingly keeps neon green pies in his fridge, even as he doesn’t enjoy them. Strickland, by contrast, takes great interest in a turquoise Cadillac, but before buying it awkwardly seeks assurance from the car salesman that it is not green.

It is thus through color, that Del Toro truly enriches his story of otherness. Giles a non-disabled white man, at times stands in contrast to the marginalized and principled Eliza, yet his compassion for the green pie (an other of sorts), is symbolic of his goodness. Strickland, a less redeemable white man (he’s a bit of a caricature in fact, though that’s not really a flaw in the movie, as Strickland’s characterization is an essential part of the film’s 50s aesthetic), goes out of his way to make sure the borderline green thing he loves is not green: his behaviour is reminiscent of “straight” men going out of their way to point out that they are not gay.

While green is the film’s primary color, red is it’s secondary shade. Red tends to appear in the film in the form of blood. One interpretation of the appearance of blood is that it is an invocation of Shylock’s “doesn’t a Jew bleed” speech. Be they green-haters or lovers, Russians or Americans, humans or non-humans all of the film’s characters bleed red.

The Shape of Water is simultaneously a political, and apolitical film. Through depicting intersecting racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism, Del Toro made a movie that he saw as a response to the rise of (presumably) the alt-right. At the same time, the film, through its logic of everyone bleeds, tries to transcend political ideology in favour of humanism (perhaps anthropomorph-ism is a better word in the context of this film). While there is a cold war subplot to the film, and it is an American agent that comes across as the film’s villain, for the most part the Soviet-American conflict simply contributes to the film’s period commitment. The film’s “good” Soviet, like the film’s “good” Americans, stands in contrast with his mission-focused superiors, as opposed to with “American ideals,” and vice versa.

In short, The Shape of Water is a film of various “others” uniting. Chief amongst the others is of course the creature. While largely anthropomorphic in its design, and compassionate towards humans in its behaviour, the character was carefully designed so as to not make it 100% obvious that he can be embraced by humans. One small example of this is his stunning eyes, which though charming, are indeed more fish than human like.

There is one scene near the end of the movie where the creature’s loveableness is indeed put into question. While the script largely brushes over this incident, it adds important nuance to the film. Loving the other is easy when it simply means resisting the textbook bigotry of figures like Strickland. It’s more of a challenge when there are times where the other does truly seem like an other.

There is one final thing I should point out. The Shape of Water shares some notable similarities with a Dutch student film called The Space Between Us, To be honest, what caught my attention most when I watched the short film was not its similarities with The Shape of Water, but that despite being a student film it’s graphics were on par with Del Toro’s big budget effort. There are notable similarities between the films such as the design of the monster (fish eyes included), the context in which the janitor finds it, and muteness (albeit, the protagonist in the short film is metaphorically mute as a gas-mask wearing working class woman in a world of authoritative soldiers and scientists). I am not a strong believer in intellectual property and believe in the retelling of stories. I am also hesitant to jump to conclusions, given that when asked to comment on this issue, Del Toro notes he had been developing this idea along with novelist Daniel Kraus since 2011 (The Space Between Us was released in 2015). That said, it would be a shame for The Space Between Us to go under-appreciated due to its similarities to the newer film, and moreover, I see no problem in using a bound-for-success film to prop up the viewership of a less visible effort (both are good works).

The controversy aside, The Shape of Water is a simple, plain-stated story, but one that also provides a lot of room for dialogue and analysis. Whether you like seeing dark science-fiction, or simply find fish-eyed creatures, whose vulnerability is expressed through their gill-based breathing, adorable, you should enjoy The Shape of Water.