'The Shape of Water' flows into sweet, strange love story

Sally Hawkins in 'The Shape of Water'

(CNN)Guillermo del Toro's visual artistry thrives in the realm of fantasy. The director funnels those skills into a sweet but strange container with "The Shape of Water," a sensual if not fully buoyant reimagining of monster classics that essentially transforms "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" into an unlikely land-sea love story.

For those who consider "Pan's Labyrinth" del Toro's masterpiece, that status remains unthreatened by this appealing but relatively slight film, which is intriguingly set during the early 1960s, informed by a Cold War sensibility, and possesses a broader message about conquering prejudices and fears associated with the different and unknown.
Sally Hawkins provides the movie's melancholy emotional spine as Elisa, a mute cleaning woman in a secret government facility. She's understandably shocked to discover that the lab has become home to an aquatic, man-like creature (Doug Jones, who also disappeared under makeup in del Toro's aforementioned "Pan's" and "Hellboy"), captured by a federal agent (Michael Shannon, at his venomous best) who tortures him with a shock prod.
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    Sad and lonely, Elisa's support system includes her caring co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), dealing with his own difficulties finding love in this closeted era. She also encounters an unexpectedly sympathetic figure in the form of a scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) working on the project, the purpose of which -- other than keeping "the asset," as it's called, away from the Soviets -- is, like many of the film's obvious questions, left largely shrouded in mystery.
    Then again, all of that's really secondary to the gradual bond that develops between the unusual captive and the highly empathetic Elisa, which begins innocently enough, if symbolically, with a hard-boiled egg.
    Although the premise invites "Beauty and the Beast"-type comparisons, including a fairy-tale-like narration at the outset, Elisa's vulnerability -- beautifully conveyed by Hawkins -- alters the equation. So, too, does the relationship's sexual component, which is dealt with sensitively but still risks becoming a distraction if only in pondering the logistics.
    Strictly on a technical level, the creature proves an impressive achievement, from the unorthodox blinking of its eyes to its sleek, lustrous exterior, appearing alternately fearsome and gentle as he and Elisa learn to communicate.
    Sharing script credit with Vanessa Taylor, del Toro is preoccupied with contemplating the enveloping nature of love, which among other things helps explain the title. At the same time, "The Shape of Water" indulges in a few questionable flourishes (a somewhat jarring fantasy sequence comes to mind), and at times feels like it's treading water before its finishing kick.
    Perhaps foremost, the film plays like an ode to the black-and-white staples that helped forge del Toro's passion for movies, drawing upon those old-fashioned virtues even as the director seeks to update them with a distinctive spin.
    Viewed in that light, "The Shape of Water" represents an admirably ambitious effort. Yet while the result is by no means flat, nor is it as sparkling as intended.
    "The Shape of Water" premieres Dec. 1 in the U.S. It's rated R.