Del Toro’s award-winning picture, The Shape of Water, is often dubbed his best, but there are just as many reasons against this assertion as for it.
With multiple awards, a 92% score on Rotten Tomatoes and love from both audiences and critics, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is an uncontested masterpiece. But is it his best film? Many signs point to yes. From its delightful mix of old school direction with modern viewpoints to its moving, meaningful message, it’s a movie that connects with viewers deep on the inside.
Del Toro has created several highly acclaimed films, however, and it might be a knee-jerk reaction to dub this his magnum opus. Plenty of fans will argue that Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth and other films by the artist deserve the title more.
It Is The Best: Its Representation Of Agency Is Glorious
Not only does The Shape of Water feature a mute person who can thoroughly express herself, offering a complex, nuanced representation of a differently-abled person that’s incredibly needed and welcome among films, but it makes her the quiet heroine. She has no superpowers, no super strength. She’s just a regular person and a cleaning woman. But she has her heart and her will.
She also is represented as a whole person who not only dreams and takes risks and explores her own pleasure, which audiences witness through her gaze and her experiences. Compared to other films and TV shows, it’s a revolutionary act.
It Isn’t The Best: Pan’s Labyrinth Is More Moving
Fans often argue about which is the better picture: The Shape of Water or Pan’s Labyrinth. Labyrinth often wins in the “most moving” category. Both pictures feature relevant themes that modern people can both empathize and relate to, and they both issue cautionary tales told in a gritty fairytale format, but Labyrinth often hits people in the feels more deeply, due to its subject matter and content.
The danger present is much more eminent in Labyrinth — not only with a child on the line, but with its wartime setting. It’s just plain scarier. The villain’s reach is much wider, young Ofelia’s peril is more harrowing and it has a much more tragic ending.
It Is The Best: It Won Best Picture At The 90th Academy Awards
While the critics don’t always know what’s best and are even known to skip over the year’s best gems, on occasion, the fact that The Shape of Water won not one but two Academy Awards, as well as a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, remains an impressive feat. It certainly makes it more impressive than del Toro’s other films, in terms of accolades. The movie swept up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Director and Best Direction, respectively.
Pan’s Labyrinth, often hailed as his best movie, won a BAFTA too, but it was only nominated for both Academy Award and a Golden Globe.
It Isn’t The Best: It’s Not The #1 Crowd Pleaser
As much as audiences love The Shape of Water, it’s Pan’s Labyrinth that rates higher among audiences on both Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. And it doesn’t stop there: The Devil’s Backbone is also rated higher with IMDb, indicating a larger fan following than Water.
Like any other data, this doesn’t provide resounding proof: more audiences have surely seen the older movies, and audience approval isn’t everything. While Backbone scores higher with audiences and lower with critics at Rotten Tomatoes, Water does the opposite. Still, how beloved a film is with its audience should at least be a part of the litmus test for best overall film.
It Is The Best: It Transcends Genre
Most of del Toro’s films transcend genre, which is why he’s such a gifted creator. He rarely sticks to just one tone. In The Shape of Water, he crosses the most boundaries yet, traipsing into both the romance and horror territory, while simultaneously weaving in fantasy, drama, science fiction and action. In this way, it is the best reflection of life that del Toro has given viewers, to date.
Yet the movie reflects old Hollywood style without actually mimicking it, giving audiences both a nostalgic feel, as well as a challenge to accept the impossible. It even caricatures “the good ole days” at one point, most notably in what a WASP marriage meant. There’s an unexpected happily ever after in the darkness, but only if you embrace its defiance.
It Isn’t The Best: It Alienates People With Disabilities
Elisa, in The Shape of Water, is both a hero and a woman with a disability, which offers much-needed representation in media. In some ways, however, it actually does a disservice to people with disabilities. Many have criticized the story, arguing that Elisa is only able to be with “her own kind,” and that she falls for the creature because he’s the only being she is able to relate to in the film.
While the film may provide agency to a woman where so many other fairytales and action-adventures have failed, it misses the mark when it comes to Elisa’s abilities. Elisa shouldn’t be seen as “missing something” or not “whole,” simply because she doesn’t speak.
It Is The Best: It Refreshes Stale Tales
Most fairytale fans know the original story of “The Little Mermaid” as a tragic tale where the titular character is turned into seafoam. Disney fans know a more saccharine yet troubling version in which a teen gives up her very voice for the chance of marrying a guy she hasn’t even talked to yet. Both might be fun, but neither are the meaningful, achingly beautiful fairytale del Toro delivered with this film.
Del Toro establishes a well-rounded character with a career, friends and principles, and the love story has more time to develop. Elisa doesn’t even abandon her loved ones for the Amphibian Man, instead, he saves her life as she dies saving him, with the help of the water, her new home. It also puts a new twist on del Toro’s inspirational material, The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
It Isn’t The Best: Other Del Toro Works Have Better Cinematography
There’s a reason why Pan’s Labyrinth won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography: because the movie outshines every other in that department, including The Shape of Water. Even though Shape is incredibly shot, with nods to classic monster movies and modern twists that make it truly magical, no one can argue against the outright otherworldliness of the cinematography in Pan’s Labyrinth.
People watched Pan’s Labyrinth and stumbled away as if they’d been abducted into a dark faerie realm, wobbling back into reality with their hearts in their throats. While Shape of Water had a stirring impact, it wasn’t the same effect.
It Is The Best: It’s Del Toro’s Favorite
Guillermo del Toro himself cites The Shape of Water as his own favorite among his darlings, which should be counted toward its cumulative score. He famously came close to death during production with a near-fatal accident, so a harrowing experience wasn’t even enough to make him look badly upon his well-loved film.
The artist has revealed that the film comes closest to his own life, plainly stating that not only is he most proud of it, but that it’s simply his favorite of his pictures. He says The Shape of Water has “enormous heart,” and that he continues to cry several times while watching it, no matter how many times he’s seen it.
It Isn’t The Best: It’s Not His Last
The most obvious reason why The Shape of Water isn’t del Toro’s best picture is simply the fact that it’s not his final film. There’s no way to even crown a victor until he’s made his final movie, and we can all hope that there aren’t any plans to retire soon.
While next year’s Pinocchio is already said to be as far as you can get from Disney’s adaptation, it probably isn’t about to yank the title of best del Toro work away from Shape of Water or his other prominent films … or is it? In all seriousness, it is possible that he will create something even richer and more inspiring. After all, he’s done it before.