Do you love fairytales? I do, so much so that they were my only form of reading in my early years. Fairytales aren’t always pretty and sweet, like Disney. The true fairy tales are dark, forbidding, and teach us lessons about life. Guillermo Del Toro has mastered this truth and brought to life a retelling of a familiar fairy tale, The Littlest Mermaid, bringing it to life in a modern setting. The grittiness is exactly what I love about fairytales, the blend of beauty and darkness. It is everything I’d hoped for from Del Toro, the perfect balance of romance and truthfulness.
Set in America’s 1950’s cold war era, this dreamy story captures the essence of a fairy tale from the very beginning as it introduces us to Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who is mute and works in a hidden top-secret government facility as a cleaner, her only friend her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa leads a lonely existence until one day a strange half sea-creature, half man is brought to the laboratory by a government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) for experimentation.
The creature, who reminded my husband of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, is discovered by Elisa to be intelligent. She also learns that he is as lonely as she is and the pair begin to bond. Scientist Robert Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) studies the aquatic specimen but Strickland advocates for dissection. Unwilling to allow him to be destroyed, Elisa comes up with a plan but the question becomes, can she succeed before the true monster, Strickland, destroys the creature she has come to love?
Let me start with telling you just why I loved this film so much. The genius of Guillermo Del Toro’s comes in his blending and twisting the elements of the fairy tale. The predictable pieces, understanding that Elisa is falling in love with the nameless merman, only drives the tension and builds on the retelling. The weaving of tiny details both from the original fairy tale and the use of symbolism build a romantic, beautiful tale of love and allows for a new insight into who we think the monster is. The relationship is compelling and is the heart of the story. Each detail layers the connections between them and even little minutiae become critical to the relationship between Elisa and her new friend. Del Toro incorporates the darkness in the actions of Strickland as Strickland attempts to keep control of the merman.
One of the key elements is the use of music. While Elisa is mute, her hearing is not affected. She is moved by music and dance, old films and as she gets to know her new friend, she brings music to his world as well. This bonds the pair but it also allows the movie to be highlighted by the music selections. Each song is carefully chosen to reflect the mood of the scene or to expound upon the action. Music is critical to the story and equally so to the fairy tale that Del Toro has chosen to retell.
Another factor that brings to life the movie is the characterization. Each character is built lovingly and details of their lives shown through how they interact with the world and each other. Elisa brings food for Giles because she knows he forgets to eat. Her caring is shown in each moment with the creature. Even the fact that we have no name for the merman becomes compelling and evocative as this allows his actions and behavior to show who he is. Strickland’s disdain and dismissal of Elisa is shown right from the beginning in a scene where she and Zelda are cleaning the bathroom of the laboratory and he walks in. Instead of waiting until they leave, he stops in front of the pair and uses the bathroom without regard for their feelings. To him, they are beneath him, nothing and he shows it with this action. This type of writing allows the characters to shine.
The design of the merman is incredible. He is created with realism and expression, despite his alienness. Yet, within that realism, is beauty. This is not an ugly creation but one that melds elements of the Creature of the Black Lagoon with true creatures of the ocean. His vocal sounds the song of the whale, the iridescent lighting the glow of the jellyfish or the electric eel. All of these details bring an authenticity and truth to the character, allowing the viewer to suspend disbelief and truly believe that mermen do exist somewhere in the depths of the ocean.
The mastery of the storytelling would not work without the actors. Sally Hawkins is crucial to the success of the film. Her ability to demonstrate expression through gestures and facial expressions is consummate. She imbues her character with both meekness and sensuality in turn, her moment to shine when she tells Strickland in sign to F** off triumphant. Who can have such a marvelous design of a fish man without Doug Jones, who is the same actor who played Abe in “Hellboy.” I can’t think of a better choice and he does a brilliant job of bringing emotion to what could have been a one dimensional character. Without his ability to impart connection, the love between the pair would not be nearly so compelling. The intimacy between the merman and Elisa is beautiful and rich. Richard Jenkins is sweet as her friend Giles, as he helps her with her plan to save her merman. It is his voice that begins the film and his narration that ends it, his poetry giving rise to the title of the film. Octavia Spencer is her usual brilliant and funny self, as she becomes our interpreter for Elisa, giving us exposition critical to our understanding of Elisa and her actions within the film. Even Michael Stuhlberg is wonderful as the scientist who seeks to understand rather than destroy his specimen, who lives for science above all else.
The only piece that misses for me is Michael Shannon. While he does a great job with the role, the character was not nearly as complex as I would have liked. His character is shown brilliantly to be a religious zealot and a condescending monster but one of the problems is that I’ve seen Michael Shannon play this character before, in “Boardwalk Empire” and in other portrayals. I would have appreciated him getting the opportunity to stretch more and it would have given more depth to the character as well. Despite that, it still plays to the truth of the film and shines a light on how we perceive monsters.
This is the best retellings of a fairy tale that I have ever seen. If you love fanciful stories and tales of unlikely romance told in a visionary style, you’ll want to see this movie. If you love Guillermo Del Toro’s style, you’ll fall in love with this masterpiece. His writing has only grown better since “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Every detail connects and builds the relationship between the protagonists. I fell in love with Sally Hawkins, her portrayal of Elisa was so beautiful and expressive. I could watch this film multiple times, it is so breathtaking. If you see this film, I believe you’ll fall in love just like I did.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Elisa is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security government laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes forever when she discovers the lab’s classified secret — a mysterious, scaled creature from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile government agent and a marine biologist.
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Story by: Guillermo del Toro