I like Guillermo del Toro quite a lot, and I like Jean-Pierre Jeunet a lot, and I like them for very similar reasons - they both make over-saturated movies dominated by production design and fanciful rather than realistic visual effects - and I still would never, ever pretend that I wanted to see a film that combined their two styles. But here we are, and here's The Shape of Water, a long-gestating passion project for del Toro, and it's basically the movie that you'd get if AmΓ©lie and Hellboy had a baby. With all due humility in recognising that what I'm about to say is clearly a minority opinion, it doesn't work at all.

The Jeunetisms are never more profound, or damned annoying, than in the opening sequence, which finds Richard Jenkins narrating the intro of a sort of fairy tale, as we see a long take in bold sea-green CGI, of a woman's apartment filled with water, as she gently floats in space. Alongside this, Alexandre Desplat's heavily Gallic score puffs and pipes its way along on the soundtrack, adding to the feeling of a sadly romantic carnival (the music, probably my favorite thing Desplat has composed since The Grand Budapest Hotel, is very frequently the only thing in the film doing any emotional work at all). And it's all lovely and fine and what have you, but it also feels a bit forced, tonally off in some small but nagging way.

Tone will prove to be a persistent issue for The Shape of Water all throughout the rest of its running time. In his nine films preceding this one, del Toro has tried out a lot of different genres and emotional registers, but never the two things he's playing at here: swoony romanticism and cultural satire. The results are inconclusive; the one thing I will say in favor of the film is that it eventually finds its footing, and most of the film's second half is actually quite good. Which coincides exactly with a transformation into a fantasy thriller much more in line with the director's earlier work.

The film is del Toro's tribute to movies and moviegoing, as much as it is anything else, but mostly it's his obvious attempt to do his own version of Creature from the Black Lagoon, and all the movies doing off-brand version of its monster. In the typical gill man scenario, a group of First World scientists (one might just as well say "Americans" and be done with it, though there might be some English or Italian gill man film I'm not familiar with) heads to South America, and finds a fish-human who grows erotically attached to the gorgeous woman who has come along on the mission. This is, indeed, the weird polestar of gill man pictures; the monster always tries to make it with a pretty human. The Shape of Water turns all this on its head: it takes place in no more exotic setting than Baltimore, sometime during in the first years of the 1960s, where a scientific mission has just successfully brought a creature (del Toro mainstay Doug Jones in aΒ fantastic monster suit) from Amazonia back to the self-evidently menacing Occam Research Center, to figure out if its unique two-part breathing system might help with the space race. Here, a mute janitor named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), overlooked by the very serious men in very serious suits due to her low status, is able to spend enough time visiting the creature that she starts to fall in love with him.

That's a scenario with just the right amount of fucked up, though the script by del Toro & Vanessa Taylor unnecessarily clutters it up by trying to be about, basically, everything in the whole of society, circa 1962. A little Red panic here, glancing engagement with the very visible racism of the era and the very invisible homophobia, the gaudy consumer culture of that time, paranoia about the growing might of the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower had warned about in his farewell address to the nation, and plenty to say about how gender roles worked at the time. Frankly, it's much more than the film can bear, particularly all of the not-very-funny satire of the villain's home life: army asshole Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, effective as a loutish male authority, even if he's mostly on autopilot) has a terrifyingly perfect, sunny house, with adorable children and a doting, horny wife; he decides that what a man of his stature needs is a teal Cadillac, which is treated with exactly the irony that one would imagine.

It's a busy film, gathering together most of its plot strands under the overarching umbrella "people at the margins of the midcentury macroculture", but still not really figuring out what to do with most of them. Elisa's work friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a potentially interesting character (a working black woman trapped in a dead marriage) squandered by the desire to let Spencer play yet another wise sidekick. Giles is actually interesting, and Jenkins gives easily my favorite performance in the film: he's warm, he's silly and childish, he has a goofy crush, he loves movies even more than del Toro obviously does, and Jenkins manages to sell his character's boyish fancies all while being handicapped with a deliberately awful hairpiece. But it's not Giles's movie, and everything about him has been transformed into pure plot-advancing boilerplate by the one-hour mark.

Alongside all of this, the film happily tries to sell a tender love story that skips ahead too much to let us invest in it: we don't even see the gill man until about a half-hour into the two-hour feature, and by the one-hour mark, we need to be fully invested in Elisa's infatuation with him. It's writing that advances very much along the principle that "this makes sense because the plot requires that it makes sense", not because it feels true to the characters, despite Hawkins's effortful work in portraying a throughtful, lonely, libidinal character who might fall for even the slimiest of fish-men just because he's something new in her put-upon life.

Midway through, this all changes: I won't say why, but let us say that it becomes a great deal more plot- and genre-driven, Michael Stuhlbarg emerges from the background to play the only character other than Elisa with depth and a proper character arc, and the film almost totally abandons any pretense of being social commentary, which is good, because it's terrible at it (Strickland's symbolically freighted Cadillac, alas, remains). It turns from being del Toro's labored attempt at a gentle fairy tale to being del Toro's more comfortable version of a bloody, sexy fairy tale with a ticking clock and a real sense of menace.

Once that happens, The Shape of Water turns into a fine mid-tier del Toro film; it already looked the part, thanks to Paul D. Austerberry's gothic-industrial sets, and the sludgy color scheme of Dan Laustsen's brooding, dark cinematography. But only now does it feel the part, much to its credit. It's not enough to salvage the film, at least not for me, but it is enough to make it feel less like a misfire in the director's career, and more like a noble experiment that went awry before eventually getting its feet underneath it.