Why ‘The Shape of Water’ is a better version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Ysabela Golden

Maybe it’s thanks to Disney, or maybe it’s thanks to centuries of inexplicably similar folk tales spread across numerous cultures and continents, but either way it’s undeniable that the narrative of “beautiful woman falls in love with monstrous beast” has become a staple of modern pop culture. Even almost 30 years later, Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” stands up as one of the most beautiful and memorable of the corporation’s many animated features. 

The 2017 remake, though somewhat bloated in comparison to the original adaptation, has certainly done its part to renew nostalgia for the old fairy tale. But for me, the best cinematic retelling of this “tale as old as time” doesn’t come from Disney at all, but from Guillermo del Toro’s 2017The Shape of Water.”

Though technically the “moral” of “Beauty and the Beast” is that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty (or “don’t judge a book by its cover”), the narrative Disney uses to express it doesn’t really hold up under examination. Though supposedly Beast is the one who must learn that appearances can be deceiving, it’s Belle who has to look past his rough exterior to see his true demeanor. Beast just has to deal with the most beautiful woman around showing up on his doorstep. Belle’s internal and external beauty make Beast’s shallow views on appearance irrelevant—except for his tragic belief that his own makes him a monster. That is, up until the townspeople (who happen to wholeheartedly agree with him) storm his castle. As soon as Belle realizes she loves him regardless of his beastly appearance, Beast stops being ugly and turns back into a handsome prince. To recap, our story about how outer beauty has nothing to do with inner beauty has ended with the ugly mean character turning pretty because he was nice. The implications are less than fortunate.

If there’s any lesson that “Beauty and the Beast” does express successfully, it’s “don’t form mobs to kill people for being different than you,” which is fair enough considering our country’s difficulty with that concept in the not-so-distant past. But that’s just one more moral that del Toro handles better in “The Shape of Water.” His use of the movie’s setting—1960s Baltimore—sets its analogue of “monster” persecution alongside the real-world discrimination of the heroine Elisa’s main allies, her black coworker Zelda and gay neighbor Giles. Elisa herself (who looks a lot more “average human” than Belle’s “rare beauty”), is a mute janitor working at a shady government facility who faces creepy sexual harassment from her overly masculine boss, Gaston—I mean, Strickland—who bears a grudging hatred against the “Creature” he’s captured and dragged over the U.S. border for experimentation. 

Elisa, used to being disrespected and dehumanized herself, immediately recognizes the Creature as a thinking, feeling being and starts skirting her janitorial duties to bring him food, comfort and entertainment. Eventually she falls in love—because, as she signs to her neighbor, “when he looks at me, the way he looks at me, … he sees me for what I am, as I am.” In this tale, it’s both the “Beauty” and the “Beast” who are able to look past outward impressions to the person within. Over the course of the movie, Elisa and the Creature both save each other from a society set against them (and the more immediate danger of a vengeful Strickland out for blood). 

Neither of the pair ever transform into someone more conventionally appealing, meaning the storyline of “The Shape of Water” is unplagued by the more ambiguous morals of “Beauty and the Beast.” When you factor in that del Toro’s breathtaking creative vision is every bit as visually stunning as either Disney version (if it doesn’t surpass them entirely), it’s clear which reimagining of the tale comes out on top. So hey, if Disney’s going to keep making unnecessary live-action versions of their animated classics, maybe they should try hiring a director who will actually make improvements on the original?