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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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The Shape of Water is intoxicating with its lush, seductive storytelling magic.

The Shape of Movies

Music and eggs: the path to a creature's heart
Music and eggs: the path to a creature’s heart

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro make event movies. They’re not the kind of event movies that make headlines with opening weekend box office hauls north of $200 million. They don’t work under the Marvel shingle. Or DC (thank goodness). They typically don’t feature actors with exorbitant salaries. Often, their entire budget might be around $25 million, a fraction of some above-the-title actors’ payrolls.

Nonetheless, these directors create event movies. The kind that play in cozy, ornate theatres. The kind of event movies in which the filmmakers’ creativity is allowed to run wild — all over the screen, exploding not with fire, but with imagination.

Guillermo del Toro is the rare director who can straddle both worlds: the art house and the mega-plex. His Pacific Rim was a wild $190 million summer movie-movie that went sadly underappreciated. It was an IMAX event at its finest. (And a del Toro-less sequel is on its way next year).

Now, del Toro’s The Shape of Water is one of those art house event movies. It cost a “mere” $19 million and yet it is sumptuous in its production values. The details are exquisite. Like the best of Jeunet and Gilliam, every penny spent makes an appearance on the screen.

The Shape of Art

The Shape of Water, to say the least, is an unconventional love story. It’s a romance between a mute woman and an amphibian creature captured in South America. Brought to Maryland by the FBI, the creature is a target of experimentation and abuse, one which the FBI ultimately wants to destroy — as long as the Russians don’t do it first.

It is, after all, the early 1960s. Russia and America are in a heated rivalry.

The mute woman, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine), lives directly above a gorgeous movie theatre where the fantastic is brought to life in movies like The Story of Ruth, Mardi Gras and Shirley Temple musicals. Elisa’s life is anything but fantastic; it’s a life of routine and thankless work as a janitor in a research facility.

But it’s in that research facility where Elisa’s life trips into the world of the fantastic after she meets the captive creature (brought to life by Doug Jones, who played a similar being, Abe Sapien, in del Toro’s Hellboy movies).

The Shape of Love

On the surface, The Shape of Water is a crazy story. The splendor, though, is in what lies beneath — and it all leads to one of the best endings in recent memory. It’s an ending of such poetic elegance, it — as corny as it might sound — seems to reveal del Toro’s own soul, a personal revelation of how he looks at the world.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that manages to create a heady movie moment. The Shape of Water has a great one, it’s a scene in which a quiet moment of solitude and loneliness transitions from color to a munificent black-and-white scene of song and dance. Then it’s back to color and tenderness. It’s the art house equivalent to a Michael Bay explosion.

The screenplay was co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (who’s written for TV series as diverse as Game of Thrones and Alias), but this is clearly del Toro’s sweet spot of creative filmmaking. It pays tribute to pop culture of the middle 20th century: music, TV, movies and even the changing art of advertising as it transitions from the hand-drawn to the photograph.

Yeah. It’s one of those movies. It’s a richly-layered story enriched with thoughts on integrity, character, racism and the turbulence of culture. And the themes of loneliness, longing, love and loss all play central roles in turning this crazy story into something altogether relatable.

Much like Jeunet’s Amelie, the accordion figures strongly in Alexander Desplat’s score. Like Gilliam’s The Fisher King, the real world blends with the fanciful and turns the ordinary into something extraordinary. And it’s Hawkins’ terrific performance as Elisa — a daring role that could’ve easily gone sideways — which makes it all work.