The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)
France/Japan (2016) Dir. Michael Dudok de Wit
Q: When is a Studio Ghibli film not a Studio Ghibli film? A: When it’s a co-production with a UK based Dutch director and French distributor Wild Bunch.
This whimsical animated tale may have a touch of the Ghibli’s about it in its aura but its European roots are the more prominent feature on display here. Ghibli’s contribution may be purely financial and practical but fans of Japan’s top animation studio will still find this akin to their most charming and affecting works.
Boasting a simple story, this dialogue free outing sees a man shipwrecked on a remote tropical island. He struggle to survive at first but after settling down builds himself a raft but every time he makes it a few yards from the island a mysterious force destroys his raft.
After the third attempt, the man discovers the perpetrator is a large red turtle. Back on dry land, the man attacks the turtle, flips it onto its back and leaves it for dead. The next day the turtle suddenly turns into a woman whom the man nurses back to health. They become close and enjoy life on the island together, later siring a boy of their own.
The collaboration between Michael Dudok de Wit and Studio Ghibli began in 2008 when the mighty Hayao Miyazaki saw de Wit’s 2001 Oscar winning short animated film Father And Daughter and proposed working together. Eight years later the end result finally arrives although it is Ghibli’s other founder Isao Takahata who is involved not Miyazaki.
But, as suggested earlier, any artistic influence Studio Ghibli may have on The Red Turtle is largely spiritual; there is admittedly an air of Miyazaki’s whimsy and Takahata’s stark realism but this is all de Wit’s film. Mixing flights of fantasy with the all too familiar caprice of Mother Nature, de Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran have a crafted a delightful tale that reflects on the cycle of life, inside just 78 minutes.
We are offered no exposition regarding the man’s background or how he came to lost at sea, the film opens with him fighting a losing battle against a tirade of angry storm waves. Later he awakens on the shore of the island, his only company a little crab nipping at his toes. Along with its family, the crab provides comic relief, akin to the Soot Sprites from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (a possible tribute perhaps?).
Having acclimatised to his surroundings, the man finds many wonders, and horrors, upon the island but returning to civilisation remains a priority. The intervention of the titular turtle has a Jaws-esque sense of drama to it, without the bloodlust naturally, the turtle able to appear and disappear on a whim. Yet it is the man whose provides the violence and shocking it is too, given the gentle nature of the film thus far.
One aspect de Wit stays true to is the unflinching portrayal of natural vicissitudes this predicament incurs, this outburst in particular being the accumulation of the man’s frustration at his failed attempts to leave the island. Earlier, he finds a dead seal which makes him retch; later on with his family, fish are gutted in preparation for their dinner – all animated with astute precision.
As laid back and bucolic as this is, there is still danger to be found. One scene sees the man fall through a crack in the rocks and into a small lagoon. The only escape is by swimming through a passageway under the rocks but the gap appears too narrow. As the man holds his breath whilst struggling in the tapering crevice, de Wit ensures the audience is also holding theirs in a superbly executed moment of nail biting tension.
Presumably the big question is whether the turtle did turn into a woman or was the man simply hallucinating? I’m not going to tell you and neither is de Wit but it doesn’t matter because the story told remains charming and poignant, with equal doses of joie de vivre and genuine heartfelt moments.
Ultimately, the man survived and had a good life on the island. He gave the same to the woman and brought another life into the world – what is to say this may not have happened if he had gone back to civilisation? What if he did marry but it didn’t last? Or he had kids and their lives were cut short? Instead, here is a man had nothing but ended up with everything. Fate is funny like that.
Whether that is the story de Wit was telling I don’t know but that is how I chose to interpret it – you may feel differently, but that is the wonder of cinema. And speaking of which, even in animated form this is pure cinema. Don’t be put off by the absence of dialogue de Wit has shown it isn’t necessary.
There are noises, shouts, cries, grunts and laughs but the character are fully formed and they communicate with the audience in the same tacit way as they do with each other. What this does is allow the sound designs to take over and this is a rich aural experience, from the crashing rains to the twittering of the birds, the roll of the tide and the bustling of leaves.
Any CGI present thankfully doesn’t overwhelm the 2D animation, which is astonishing in portraying realistic human movements in a manner that would suggest motion capture but I strongly doubt it. The turtles are also represented with authenticity, their graceful swimming motions accurately realised here, whilst the underwater scenes create a sensation of flying rather than swimming, the density and transparency of the water proving quite ambiguous at times.
With modern cinema being about visual excess (Zootropolis criminally beat this at the Oscars this year), it is nice to occasionally strip everything back to its core values. The Red Turtle does that in the most satisfying and emotionally enchanting way. A true piece of art.