Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
The sun hasn’t quite set on Studio Ghibli. Chiefly there’s the promise of a further farewell feature from the great Hayao Miyazaki in the form of Boro The Caterpillar, but for right now there’s their identifiable involvement in this feature presentation from master animator Micharl Dudok de Wit. Ghibli take a co-production credit here and the highly esteemed Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya) takes a credit as artistic producer. But while the themes of some of Ghibli’s finest works course through The Red Turtle it is pleasingly still Dudok de Wit’s creation and should best be considered separately from the grand body of work that the major Japanese studio has under their umbrella.
We begin with a man adrift at sea. His past, the circumstances that led to this, they are immaterial. Floundering, he washes up on a desert island; little more than a rock with a forest and a rise on one side. He explores, garners the curiosity of a family of crabs, has minor exploits including a slip and fall into an enclosed pool that he is forced to dive and squeeze his way out of. Dissatisfied with his lot and with nobody rushing to save him, he decides to try to save himself. With fallen logs he builds a raft, stocks it with fruit, makes a break from the shore.
But only a little way from the island his raft is butted to pieces by an unseen presence. The attempt ends in failure. But he doesn’t give up; he tries again. Again the same thing happens. Our man comes to discover his efforts are being thwarted benignly by a large red turtle. Fueled by frustration and anger, the man upturns the turtle in the scorching sun and leaves it to die as he works on a new raft. But something unexpected happens. A transformation occurs. Suddenly the man is not alone; where once there was a dying turtle, now there is a woman. The island dynamic changes.
The Red Turtle is a universal work. Dudok de Wit achieves this through subtraction. There’s no dialogue here aside from a few generic yelps and the occasional “Hello”. Aside from that we’re left in a world without speech, therefore intentions and emotions must be conveyed through actions. Through animation. This is as cinematic as animation gets, relying on the absolute bones of the medium; the combination of sound and image to convey and enthrall. To this end the film works small wonders. As early as the predicament of the sheer-walled pool Dudok de Wit has us in his grasp. The difficulty of the situation is apparent. There’s a quiet sensitivity to The Red Turtle that precipitates a bond with the audience. The economy works for the picture.
In visual terms this is an immensely satisfying and frequently beautiful experience. The hand-drawn quality imprints the film with humanity, making it appear before you as a labor of love. Details are exquisite yet there’s an appealing simplicity to the design work. And the negative spaces have the hue of coarse paper, adding to the evocative sense that this is a handmade minor masterpiece. Perhaps more impressive still is the fluidity of the piece. Characters dive and swim and glide across the screen with natural ease. This fluidity works not only through the film’s predominantly calm sequences, but also on the rare occasion that urgency is required; the rushing appearance of a tidal wave quickens the pulse, aided in no small way by Laurent Perez Del Mar’s rousing score.
Our man’s predicament, the difficulties he finds for himself and the appearance of the aforementioned tidal wave just as an example evoke nature as being wilfully indifferent to the hopes, dreams and intentions of man, suggesting that one ought to have a healthy respect for nature, as it will have no respect for you. Also that nature acts without malice; that there is a natural order and it has nothing to do with being fair. But then the red turtle herself challenges this notion. Despite the man’s act of cruelty, when he tries to remedy the hurt he has caused, the red turtle transforms into a woman. The man has companionship, soon a family. The man is given a gift even after he has attempted to take a life.
While I’ve mentioned that The Red Turtle is tailored as a universal experience – and is rated here in the UK as a PG – I would strongly urge parents with young children not to take advantage of that fact. Here’s where this review teeters on the brink of turning into a rant. The screening I attended was near ruined by attention-bereft toddlers. While this may look like a cute-ish animated film and, yes, it has an animal in the title, it’s a far cry from Sing, Despicable Me 3 or whatever other piece of delirious shite Dreamworks Animations are presently responsible for. This is a quiet, thoughtful and deliberately paced piece of art and not a whirligig of hilarious calamities to keep ceaseless fidgeters distracted. The quietude asks of patience and consideration from the viewer; something that not all young minds will offer up easily or compliantly.
The film is quite sad and bittersweet; its story not designed to placate restless kids. If you’re looking for something colourful to sit them down in front of, please, just rent Moana or something. Most independent cinemas that are likely to be screening The Red Turtle will almost certainly also be offering a Kids Club or other such opportunity for the very young to attend. Please, think of other patrons who might want to honestly enjoy the artistry of the picture before you try sitting your rowdy three-year-old down for, essentially, a silent film. The Red Turtle was a touching and beautiful experience, but it was also infuriating carnage and a struggle throughout. I don’t expect the usual level of respect for the cinema space from young children, but I do expect it from their parents. Choose wisely.