The Shape of Water vs. The Greatest Showman

The Shape of Water hoovers up awards like a filter-feeder feasting on krill. Meanwhile, the crowds continue to flock to The Greatest Showman, weeks after release. Which of these pictures will be the true cinematic winner of 2017?

Both are unashamedly retro. The Shape of Water is a film noir, with its rainy rented rooms above a cinema hall coming straight out of a 1950s movie. Likewise, its monster takes a well-trodden path in escaping from the laboratory where it is held and tortured. Guillermo del Toro even considered making the picture in black and white at one stage, which would have been a bit trying over its two-hour running length.

The Greatest Showman is like a Technicolor musical of the 1960s brought joyously up to date, with camera angles and direction that sweep you up into the big top action. In each case, we’re going back to the future.

Both films are about outsiders who are forced to live in silence on the edges of society. Sally Hawkins has an incredible emotional pull as the mute Elisa in The Shape of Water, as does her equally silent companion the Amphibian Man. In the monster movie, the only solution is to escape to another world.

The Greatest Showman, on the other hand, gleefully sticks the middle finger up to the haters by celebrating difference. It takes those who society would ridicule as freaks, and gives them a stage on which to shine, even if Hugh Jackman’s P.T.Barnum is at times more than a little bit ashamed of his own performers.

They also both include song-and-dance routines. In the case of The Shape of Water, this is the actors doing homages to old movies by copying their moves. There is also a weird dream-sequence dance routine, which would have been mercilessly ridiculed had the movie flopped.

In fact, The Shape of Water so sets itself up for parody that it would almost be too obvious to bother. The opening sequence where the contents of Elisa’s room float around her is begging to be used in The Simpsons (it appears in the trailer above).

By contrast, the dance routines in The Greatest Showman are fun, stylish and original. A particular highlight is a sequence in a bar where Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron use shot glasses as the props. Considering how much he had to carry the movie, Jackman has been unjustly overlooked during the awards season.

Not that he cares, because to the bewilderment of the critics, The Greatest Showman continues to run and run, long after it should have shuffled off to streaming services and home viewing. There have been lots of perplexed articles in the mainstream media trying to figure this out.

Funnily enough, this is one of the themes of the movie itself: that low culture can be just as important as high culture, and that the opinions of the experts are meaningless when it comes to art. It even has a snooty critic as one of its main characters, something which all the supposedly fearless reviewers step around when composing their sniffy hatchet jobs.

Retro offerings, brilliantly directed, with gorgeous visuals, both movies have justifiably been massive hits. Yet The Shape of Water left me cold, lacking any kind of new message. It was nothing like as exhilarating as The Greatest Showman. That is why I believe that in twenty years, people will still be watching and enjoying The Greatest Showman, whereas The Shape of Water will just be another Best Picture oddity, very much of its time.

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