I've been mulling over this film ever since I saw it, and I think the nearest thing I can compare it to are the romantic Borzage silents with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The intense romanticism, the gorgeous, swooning imagery, the incredible gentleness of the whole thing. If you already like silent films I think "The Shape of Water" will push all the right buttons. It's not like watching a normal film where you follow a spoken narrative in a very literal sense. You feel the story similar to a ballet, with the same intensity of emotion. Films like this rarely get made anymore. At least not for a mass market.
The film has beautiful cinematography, but its theme is a familiar one that has been explored before. To me it did not bring anything new or groundbreaking, except showing us that, when two people are in love, they actually have sex, even though they hail from different species. Pan’s Labyrinth is much more complex and visually arresting then this Disney follow up. It also has a very poignant ending, unlike the sugar coated one designed for the American audience. Watching the first 20 minutes, I was thinking how incredible the film felt. The tone, mood, dialogue, acting. All superb. Didn't manage to sustain this though and had a very slack middle. Sure, it looks great and sounds great, like a sumptuously packaged box of chocolates but with only one decent chocolate in it - Sally Hawkins' performance. The rest....quite how Michael Shannon's cartoonish villain, as if he were auditioning for the part of Snidely Whiplash in "Whacky Races", isn't hauled over the coals, or Octavia "I can do this part in my sleep by now".
The problem with many of Del Toro's films is that they tend to be a series of set pieces driven by visual concepts, but with a narrative frequently undermined by illogical leaps and poorly motivated characters. Why, for example, is Elisa so utterly unafraid of the creature, even though she first encounters it seconds after it has attacked a lab worker? And why is Strickland so carelessly brutal in dealing with a specimen that is a) the only one of its kind in captivity, b) one he's gone to enormous trouble to catch, transport and keep alive, and c) is the total focus of his work? The film is riddled with clumsy missteps that most writer-directors would have easily finessed, buy Del Toro evidently thinks his bold vision will overcome all. Like many, I was impressed with the visual concept, enchanted by Hawkins' deft performance, interested in the metaphor Del Toro was attempting to spin... yet utterly unconvinced and unmoved by it all. Details matter. Where do you think the line should be drawn on a story having some logic to it? One can't just make a sweeping statement that details don't matter and retain a critical credibility. I liked the film but it was much less than perfect. Logical flaws mess with my particular suspension of disbelief. They take me out of the story and limit my ability to empathise and embrace fully on an emotional level.
I think a greater test of any art is how it is experienced at face value without the intellectual context added to the narrative. I enjoy cinema, and "The Shape of Water" is beautifully shot. However, as a stand alone experience, I was underwhelmed.