The level of competition for the Best Animated Film at the Oscars this year was absolutely ferocious: Kubo And The Two Strings, Moana, and Zootopia each felt like they were more than deserving of the grand prize…which is why it’s just about forgivable that Michael Dudok De Wit’s beautiful fable The Red Turtle walked away without a statue.
This stunning feature comes bearing the Studio Ghibli company card, and it’s safe to say that fans of that legendary production house’s output will adore this film. In terms of tone and pacing, it’s probably closer to something like the artful spirituality of The Tale Of Princess Kaguya than the glorious parade of Spirited Away, but it’s also something entirely unique.
It begins with a man being thrown out of his boat during an incredible storm. He washes up on a desert island and discovers that, with the exception of the local wildlife, he is completely alone.
He begins to make a raft to make good his escape, but there’s something stopping him leaving: a giant red turtle. As each successive escape attempt is foiled, the man is pushed further and further towards the edge, and an act of violence will drastically alter his existence on the island.
De Wit is an acclaimed, award-winning short film director, and his feature debut feels like it is thematically and visually of a piece with his earlier work. The animation style is absolutely gorgeous as the filmmaker eschews the typical gorgeous beaches, blue skies and palm trees, instead offering the vivid green lines of bamboo forests, sludgy grey sands and foreboding stormy skies. There’s a tremendous sense of atmosphere here and, when the bright blues and yellows arrive, they’re stunning.
The story itself is relatively simple: our hero is shipwrecked and tries to escape. However, the journey that De Wit sends him on becomes increasingly meaningful and profound as old cycles are interrupted and new ones take their place. Suddenly the man’s responsibilities are no longer so simple, and the circle of life, for lack of a better phrase, takes him on a new journey.
With the exception of a couple of exclamations, De Wit forgoes dialogue completely, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps for themselves and for the revelations in the story to unfold with a graceful simplicity. Moments of magical realism feel far more natural without the need to verbally explain them, and a major fairy-tale-style incident in the film’s second half could very easily have been ruined if it had been over-explained. The same goes for the stunning dream sequences, accompanied by the incredible score by Laurent Perez Del Mar, which bring an aching beauty to the entire film.
In addition to the landscape, it’s also worth noting the film’s fantastic wildlife. These creatures are ever-present, whether it’s the noisy cicadas, the circling seagulls or the titular turtle itself, and they all have their own personalities without becoming overly caricatured. The best examples of this are the tiny crabs, which nervously watch over the man as he constructs his raft and wait for the possibility of scraps of food. Of course, there’s every chance that these creatures will end up on the menu themselves.
Although De Wit keeps things moving at a leisurely pace, there are moments of real tension (an early swimming expedition nearly going wrong is surprisingly nail-biting) and heartbreak. It’s a simple and profound story that is both intimate and universal. This is a beautiful film that must be seen.