The Red Turtle, 2016.
Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.
Featuring the voice talents of Emmanuel Garijo, Tom Hudson, Baptiste Goy, Axel Devillers, and Barbara Beretta.
A man is shipwrecked on an island, and his attempts to escape are thwarted by a giant red turtle.
There were a couple of unusual nominees in the Best Animated Feature category at the most recent Oscars – apart a couple of stop-motion films and the usual Disney and Pixar offerings, there was this oddity. A co-production between Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, it’s an enchanting film that might be a little short on character (and characters) but is rich in atmosphere and emotion.
The story focuses on an unnamed man who washes up on a desert island, alone except for the odd crab or seal. He tries his best to escape, but every raft he makes gets nudged by a giant red turtle until it collapses. When the turtle crawls ashore, the man takes his revenge by upturning the turtle on its back until it dies, and despite a few surreal black-and-white dream sequences for this happens, this is the moment the film enters into metaphorical territory. The turtle morphs into a red-haired lady with whom the man slowly bonds and eventually has a son. They make the island their home until the boy grows up and forms his own bonds with the turtles that circle the island (if that sounds off-putting, just remember that the plot of Up was pretty strange too).
Depending on how far you’re willing to go along with the plot developments in the second half of the film, you’ll either feel rewarded or cheated by the ending (where the red-haired woman turns back into a turtle and returns to the sea after the man dies of old age in his sleep). There are many ways that this could be interpreted – did the man create an imaginary family as a way of dealing with his loneliness (the fact that his wife and child swim just like turtles suggests as much), or did he feel so guilty for killing the red turtle that he laid down beside it until he died himself as a means of atonement? A definitive answer is neither given nor required, as it would rob the film of its mystery and dream-like beauty (or, in the case of one stunningly animated tsunami sequence, nightmarish beauty).
Despite Studio Ghibli’s involvement, Laurent Perez Del Mar’s sweet score is the only aspect of the film that’s vaguely Japanese. The gentle pace and total lack of dialogue (the odd frustrated scream and “Hey!” aside) reminded me of the work of French animator Slyvian Chomet (Belleville Rendezvous, The Illusionist), whereas the character design and low-contrast visual style is remarkably similar to that of Tintin creator Hergé. But the film’s simplicity is its greatest strength – the frame is never cluttered with unnecessary detail, and every emotion the characters feel is communicated perfectly well without words. It’s wonderfully refreshing in this day and age to see a 2D animated film at all (there’s the occasional piece of CG augmentation to the trees or the turtle’s shell, but that’s it), but this film truly feels like a picture book come to life.
The Red Turtle will not be to everyone’s taste. The slow pace and lack of a simple resolution may prove testing for adults as well as children, but for those craving an alternative to hyper-manic CGI sequels featuring anthropomorphic animals, this poetic and understated gem may prove to be a breath of fresh air.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★