Christian Holub
August 31, 2017 AT 12:16 PM EDT

Guillermo del Toro’s recent films have mostly opted for big-budget spectacles, such as the robot-monster mash of Pacific Rim and the epic Gothic romance of Crimson Peak. But according to critics who saw The Shape of Water premiere at Venice Film Festival this week, the director’s latest is a callback to his earlier acclaimed Spanish-language dramas like Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), mute and orphaned since birth, who scrapes along with a cleaning job at a top-secret research laboratory in Baltimore. The film is set in 1962, at the height of Cold War paranoia, and soon enough the military brass brings in a new “asset” to study in the hopes of gaining some advantage in the space race against the Soviet Union: A humanoid merman, kept inside a water tank. It is Elisa who recognizes this “asset” for the beautiful being it is, just as he recognizes her — and so romance blossoms in the unlikeliest of places.

Critics at Venice seemed to respond strongly to The Shape of Water and its blend of various classic Hollywood genres. Check out some of the early reviews below. Del Toro’s film will screen at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and arrive in theaters in December.

Xan Brooks (The Guardian)

“It feels less of a fevered artistic exercise than his other recent work; more seamless and successful in the way it orders its material. Yes, Del Toro’s latest flight of fancy sets out to liberally pastiche the postwar monster movie, doffing its cap to the incident at Roswell and all manner of related cold war paranoia. But it’s warmer and richer than the films that came before. Beneath that glossy, scaly surface is a beating heart.”

Guy Lodge (Variety)

“With encouragement from critics and awards voters, discerning viewers should make Fox Searchlight’s December release the season’s classiest date movie — for perhaps the greatest of The Shape of Water’s many surprises is how extravagantly romantic it is, driven throughout by an all-conquering belief in soulmates as lifelines. This is Del Toro’s second straight film to smuggle a swooning, lovestruck heart beneath pulpier genre clothing (‘It’s really a Gothic romance’ became something of a fan meme in response to 2015’s horror-styled Crimson Peak), though this time, there’s nothing arch about its romanticism: It’s as pure-hearted and simple a girl-meets-Amazonian-water-creature-who-might-just-be-a-god story as any ever made.”

Marlow Stern (The Daily Beast)

“The Shape of Water is bursting at the seams with remarkable visual flourishes, long a Del Toro staple. Drops of water on a bus window merge, swimming into a sharp dissolve; woman and creature embrace in a pool of water, her pale body wrapped around his like a moving painting; a vintage musical dream sequence straight out of The Artist. It is never less than magnificent.”

David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter)

“Centered on an exquisite performance from Sally Hawkins that conveys both delicacy and strength, this is a visually and emotionally ravishing fantasy that should find a welcome embrace from audiences starved for imaginative escape.”

Ben Croll (IndieWire)

“As in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro mines the film’s hyper-specific setting for larger allegorical purposes. Though Kennedy and Khrushchev rattle on in the background, the film is more interested in the specific cultural climate. It touches on segregation, on the fantasies of advertising, on relationship power dynamics and most prominently, on Giles’ life as a gay man years before Stonewall (this is the truly the first creature-feature romance that comfortably sit alongside a season of Mad Men). And it does so in a miraculously organic way by making the story an exploration of outcasts.”

Brian Formo (Collider)

“It’s an immense achievement because The Shape of Water not only entertains as a sumptuous fairytale, but it reinforces a faith in humanity set in a time where tolerance of other races, nationalities, and non-“family values” love was volatile. Much like it feels like that time period of intolerance is percolating back to the surface now. This is del Toro’s Beauty and the Beast with the delicate time period touches and social awareness of Far from Heaven.”

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