Warning: spoilers for The Shape of Water and Pan's Labyrinth follow.
In the interest of full disclosure before launching into my thoughts on The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth is my favorite movie. Mythology, flying fairies, mysterious fauns, underground monsters with forbidden feasts, lost princesses and heroic girls; I love it. With so many similarities between Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, it’s little surprise I enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s latest endeavor, too (though not enough to usurp my first love).
The Shape of Water echoes Pan’s Labyrinth on multiple fronts: a missing princess embarks on a quest(s) so she can return from her foray into the world of mortals to her eternal kingdom. Upon completion of her quest and proving her mettle, she's delivered by an otherworldly creature back to her true home, although the audience is left wondering if the girl/woman/secret princess is actually safe in the place she belongs or just suspended in the last, dream-fueled moments of consciousness before death.
The Shape of Water has a lot to say about the places where we belong; the film is a middle finger to forced hegemony by an oppressive group in its depictions of the monstrosities of racism and bigotry against people of color, who are LGBTQ+, or are differently-abled. Del Toro makes it clear that it’s not those cast as "other" who don't belong, but the actual monsters, the rotting corpses of old class orders and toxic ideologies who have no place in the fast-approaching future; the monstrous-at-heart won't be delivered to the throne room with the heroine, but rather dank prisons (or graves) of their own devising. Head of security at a locked-down government research facility, Strickland, is the true monster of del Toro’s creature-feature, a man who embodies the decay of a society clinging to structural bigotry, literally, as his severed fingers blacken and rot against their stitching. His time is up, and time is up for the culture that made him, a reverse-Pygmalion sculpture molded from self-inflated trash.
Time is omnipresent in the film, from the alarm clock Elisa clicks off in the opening scene, to the number of watches, employee time clocks, calendars, and even visual “clocks” like the monster’s tank, purposefully rounded in thick pipes and panels to remind us of the Metropolis film set and its giant, human-powered clock. The countdown to the end of the reign of monsters is on, and at the end of the final tick: a baptism and rebirth, all signified by water, eggs, and the color green.
The film’s palette is bright with jewel tones, even with its nods to classically black and white-shaded noir films (and all of cinema in general, from Elisa living above a theatre, to Easter eggs for film buffs [more eggs!] through frequent allusions to classic films [including Back to the Future – another film about time, with its use of the name “Strickland”]). Green pops in the film, from the creature’s skin to the wall paint to the molded Jell-O to the candy Strickland declares he's enjoyed “since he was a boy,” (when, we assume, he was still innocent and not yet a monster who prefers a teal Cadillac over green, women to be silent, and refers to others as "your people."). With all the film's green, I can't not think of Kermit the Frog, who first serenaded the world with the gentle reminder that it's not easy being green. Green holds a lot of symbolic weight: it's the color of new life, spring, rebirth, and life-sustaining earth. That's a lot to carry on the felted shoulders of a little frog. Luckily, Kermit has some literary counterparts to help ease the weight.
I also can’t not think of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" when the color is used liberally in film and literature. The Green Knight, with his holly bough and detachable head and magic ability to heal (just like del Toro’s creature), symbolizes everlasting life and forgiveness. In that sense, he’s Christlike, and del Toro’s creature, the “affront,” as Strickland ironically calls it, is a Christlike figure, too. The amphibious man can heal himself and others, can make others “whole” where they believed themselves lacking, whether in love or hair, and he can resurrect himself and others from the dead, (I'd also like to note that the idea of "walking on water" sounds very amphibious when, er, dissected).
In the sense that The Shape of Water mirrors elements of Sir Gawain, the film can then be "read" as chivalric romance, and Elisa cast as the questing hero set out to prove herself as more powerful than she’s ever been given credit for. As a chivalric hero, she'll have to prove this both selflessly and for someone she loves. Elisa doesn’t wield a sword, but she does wield hard boiled eggs (universal symbols of fertility and new life) and a record player; significant, as Elisa lives over a theatre named “Orpheum.” Orpheus, a Greek mythological figure, could charm death with his divine music, but is ultimately killed by those who can’t (or won't) hear it. Strickland, deaf to Elisa's "music," shoots her in his final, most heinous act.
Elisa uses music and sign language to “transform” the creature, taming his wild nature with love and communication. In this sense, Elisa recasts My Fair Lady and Eliza Doolittle, becoming a gender-reversed sculptor who teaches the feral male how to come into communion with others, and in turn, falls in love with him. Elisa is also the noir hero of the film, the detective who puzzles out how to save the damsel in distress. She’s also the hero on a hero’s journey – an orphan, “Esposito” (another nod to Orpheus) – who, after completing her quest, can’t go back to the world she started the journey from. She's the folkloric hero. The teacher of a moral lesson in a fable about the ills of human nature. (Sidenote: the most unbelievable moment of the film, to me, was when Strickland knew enough Spanish to off-hand comment on the meaning of Elisa's surname).
Circling back to the film’s introduction, though, where the voice of Elisa's artist-friend Giles tells us that this is the story of a princess, we see how the film is also a fairy tale, and Elisa, the orphan found in the river with scars on her neck where Strickland assumes her vocal chords had been cut, is actually a water creature herself. Where we thought the creature's flaking scales might transform him into a man ("The Frog Prince," anyone?), we instead see Elisa was the "fish out of water," taken back to where she’d been lost from in the first place. We can believe, then, that the scars on her neck are not remnant defects of cruelty, but are where her forgotten gills will open up. We can believe that her feet always hurt because they weren't made for walking, and she can let her shoes float away because she was always meant to swim. We can believe she isn't dead - one of millions of victims of monstrous hate - but that she's in turn rescued by the one she rescued. This is the happier ending, echoing Ofelia's deliverance to the fairy kingdom's throne room: that which is eternal does not die. Perhaps, then, it's the ladies who are the Christlike figure?
Either way, del Toro leaves viewers with the fable's moral: that unless we find our courage like Elisa, like Zelda, like Giles and Ofelia - all willing to stare the monster in the face - the Stricklands and Generals of the world will win, and wonderful pieces of the world - the divine music makers and artists and healers and magical beings - will be lost to us, forever.