THE RED TURTLE – Review
This weekend sees the wide release of one of the films nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, one quite different from the others in that category. It’s not a candy-colored CGI fantasy like Disney’s ZOOTOPIA or MOANA (certainly devoid of musical numbers). And it doesn’t utilize the technique of stop-motion animation (often using tiny figurines or puppets) like KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS or MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI (from France). This work harkens back to the “golden age” of animation in that it is mostly hand-drawn “cel” animation (though computers aid in certain effects and in coloring). Fitting since it is co-produced by the renown Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, the “house” that Hayao Miyazaki (SPIRITED AWAY), among other talented artists, built. What makes this film even more unique is that it is Ghibli’s first feature not made in Japan. The director and co-writer Michael Dudok de Wit is Dutch-British, so most of the production was based in Europe (mainly France). And while the other nominees have their share of big comedy sequences and manic slapstick action, this is a rather somber adult-oriented film about survival and loneliness. Oh, and there’s no real dialogue, aside from some growls, grunts, and giggles. But like several of those other nominees, there is an animal involved, the magical title character known as THE RED TURTLE.
The story (maybe more of a fable) starts by placing us alongside a desperate man struggling to stay above the waves while being tossed about during a violent storm. What happened? How did he get adrift? We’re never told. Luckily “The Man”(since his name is never revealed) spots his overturned rowboat (lifeboat?) and clings to it as the ocean buffets him. He awakens on the shore of a vast island, near the shattered remains of his boat. Eventually he explores his surroundings. Past the rocky cliffs, along the beach he finds a plush green forest, with trees full of fruit, puddles of fresh water, and lots of towering bamboo. Almost immediately The Man gathers the fallen bamboo shafts and assembles a raft. But once he’s back out on the water, something underneath the raft rams into it, causing the makeshift craft to fall apart. The frustrated seafarer returns to shore and begins to build once more. He launches again with the same disastrous results. The Man howls in anger, and resigns himself to his fate. But the loneliness takes its toll as he hallucinates a string quartet performing on the beach. Will despair lead to madness? No, he must try again. This time at sea, the vandal is revealed. It is no whale, seal, or shark, but rather an enormous red turtle, who swims around the raft before submerging in order to destroy it. After returning to the beach, The Man is surprised to find that turtle basking in the sun, His rage engulfs him. Grabbing a stalk of bamboo he pummels the beast before flipping it on its back. The next day, he returns to the “scene of the crime”, perhaps hoping the turtle has returned to the sea. Instead he sees something miraculous. Inside the empty red shell rests a sleeping human woman! What kind of magic is this? Did someone answer his prayers? What will the fates have in store for him and his potential new “mate”?
Yes indeed, fable is the right word. This is an engrossing fairy tale which will captivate audiences of all ages. It has a somber, haunting mood which draws the viewer in, eventually engulfing us in its leisurely pacing. Of course this heightens the dramatic impact of the action sequences, particularly the impact of a massive tidal wave on the island and its occupants that’s every bit as harrowing as THE IMPOSSIBLE. It almost matches the suspense of an earlier scene when The Man falls into a crevasse and must swim through an increasingly tight passageway between the rocks (this will make claustrophobics gasp for air). There are similarities to the recent SWISS ARMY MAN and, of course, CAST AWAY, but the title creature gives the story a otherworldy bent. Director Dudok de Wit has designed the characters with a simplistic style, referencing the look of classic children’s books. The humans have black dots for eyes (much like the early look of a certain mouse), and unlike the now typical “over-rendered” CGI films, not every wrinkle or facial hair is delineated. In this case, less is truly more, as the characters don’t pull our focus away from the lush backgrounds, many of which are dazzling charcoal sketches (with a bit of software enhancement). Though this is a somber, more quiet film than most animated features, there are still moments of whimsy thanks to a group of crabs that act almost as a “Greek chorus” (they’re always hungry), popping up to badger The Man. As this gem reaches its “just right” 80 minute running time (close to the 72 minute length of the classic Disney features), the theme of the fable is clear. This island is not the hero’s version of Hell, but rather his paradise, an idyllic Heaven. And for audiences looking for a motion picture that grabs the heart and delights the eyes, THE RED TURTLE is an unexpected treasure on that faraway island.
4.5 Out of 5
THE RED TURTLE opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas