(On Cable TV, October 2018) I love when a movie works better than I expected, but the reverse also happens and unfortunately, I find myself underwhelmed by Guillermo de Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. Keep in mind that “underwhelmed” is a relative term: I still think it’s a good movie, and couldn’t be happier that it was actually crowned with a Best Picture Oscar. It’s a film that shows del Toro with his firmest grasp yet on his own brand of fantasy: It’s self-assured, archetypical on premises while quirky on details, delightfully otherworldly in its setting and playing up the natural sympathies of del Toro for monsters of all sorts. It doesn’t take a long time for the basic plot to be set in motion, what with a quiet young woman (Sally Hawkins, hopefully never again underrated) meeting an aquatic creature at a secret government facility. The alien-escape plot is decently textured with social discrimination, Soviet agents, power-mad military personnel and early 1960s social subversion, but it does remain as basic as they come. This is not necessarily a criticism, since del Toro’s best work has often been in maximalist approaches to minimalist plots, making up in richness of details what is too easy to follow in overarching story. Visually, The Shape of Water is just as lovely (in its own way) as any of del Toro’s previous films, even though the visual inventively is kept in check by a less expansive approach. This familiarity is also shown in the film’s themes, which is blatantly supported by having a ragtag band of disenfranchised misfits (gay, black, communist, disabled, aquatic) take on the white male military establishment as coolly incarnated by Michael Shannon. It works, but it really isn’t subtle at all. Ultimately, though, The Shape of Water just isn’t as interesting as much of del Toro’s previous work. As much as I hate sounding like an insupportable hipster contrarian, I thought El Espinoza del Diablo, Pan’s Labyrinth and even Crimson Peak (not to mention his more commercially driven material along the lines of Blade II and Hellboy 2) were ultimately more interesting than The Shape of Water. On the other, other hand (since we’re talking fantastic creatures), this is the film that got del Toro an Oscar, mainstream critical attention and especially enough box-office clout to greenlight future projects: While he’s been a long-time geek favourite, del Toro was, until recently, not much of a bankable name: Other than his propensity to announce projects that ultimately led nowhere, his movies didn’t gross much despite their favourable critical acclaim. Now that he’s been given an Oscar that looks suspiciously like a body-of-work recognition, what else will he show us next?