The Red Turtle
Directed by: Michael Dudok de Wit.
Written by: Michael Dudok de Wit & Pascale Ferran.
The Red Turtle is an enchanting animated fable – a strange love story that is at turns gorgeous, ambigious and confounding. Its Dutch director, Michael Dudok de Wit has won an Oscar for Father and Daughter (2000) – but until now has worked exclusively in short films. To be honest, that shows a little bit in The Red Turtle – while the film is only 80 minutes long, it does tend to drag at times, and repeat itself. At perhaps half its length, The Red Turtle may well have been amazing. At 80 minutes, there’s a lot of things that are amazing about it – and it’s still one of the year’s most beautiful animated films – it’s just not quite the masterwork it could be.
The story of The Red Turtle is simple – a man becomes stranded of a desert island, and is determined to get off. He builds one raft after another and heads out to the ocean, only to have his raft be broken apart – repeatedly – by some unseen force of nature. Eventually, that unseen force will make itself known – it is the title character, a giant red turtle. Eventually that Red Turtle will transform – into a beautiful woman – and when it does, the movie morphs into something else.
To be honest, I’m not a 100% sure what precisely The Red Turtle is trying to say – about love, nature, death, parenthood, etc. Some of it is obvious enough for a child to grasp, but other parts seem to be confused and a little muddled. I love the choice that Dudok de Wit makes to keep the movie dialogue free – yet that does tend not to aid too much in making things clearer.
Yet, there is something to be said for the ambiguity of the film – how it relates nature and love, and how these two characters eventually come together, even after the man ends up doing something violent. The film paints in broad strokes in terms of its characters – they are not the most expressive faces, Dudok de Wit favoring a more European style of character animation (honestly, the characters features remind me of Tintin more than anything else) – and they are constantly dwarfed by the natural surroundings of the island itself – the mountains, the lush forest, and the raging ocean right on the edge. Visually, those are more impressive than the characters.
Perhaps, the film isn’t meant to be read too much into – it certainly isn’t meant to be taken literally. The film is a true international production – with the Dutch director directing getting funding from France, and Japan - it’s a pleasure to see the Studio Ghibli logo again. Like the best films in Ghibli’s history, The Red Turtle works best as a mood piece than anything else. There are thrilling, exciting and beautiful moments – but it’s also a rather introspective film – one that allows you time to think about it as it progresses. It is a small film – but it also contains big ideas. Perhaps those ideas are too big for the filmmakers to completely grapple with in this one film – but you have to admire them for trying, and for making a beautiful, quiet, introspective film. It’s not perfect by any means, but in its own way, it works beautifully.