Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Screenplay: Michael Dudok de Wit, Pascale Ferran
Starring: Emmanuel Garijo, Tom Hudson, Baptiste Goy
Country: France, Belgium, Japan
Running Time: 80 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
I'm an absolute sucker for animated films, so watch and enjoy a great deal of them. My favourite director has long been Hayao Miyazaki and the work he does, as well as that of Studio Ghibli, the production company he co-founded, is always classed as 'must see' in my household as I consider their output some of the best of the format. Michael Dudok de Wit's The Red Turtle is only partly produced by Studio Ghibli, but its strong reviews have kept it firmly at the top of my 'to watch' list ever since I became aware of it. I frustratingly missed a couple of opportunities to see it on the big screen, but finally my chance came to watch the film when I was offered a screener to review, so I cranked up my projector and settled down, trying but failing to dampen my expectations in case of disappointment.
The Red Turtle opens with a nameless man struggling to keep hold of a capsized boat during a terrible storm, before later waking up on a desert island, the shattered remnants of his boat largely washed away. He survives as best he can and soon attempts to leave the island, stringing bamboo trunks together to form a small raft. This gets smashed by an unknown force under the water, so he swims back to shore and later tries again. His second raft gets destroyed again by a similar unseen underwater attacker. Then, on his third attempt, he catches his assailant in the act. It's a large red turtle, who follows the man back to the island. In his anger and frustration, the man takes a large piece of wood and beats the turtle, then flips it on its back to die in the baking sunlight. After a while, the man realises what he's done though and tries to nurse the animal back to life. Instead what happens takes the film in a fantastical direction, as the turtle turns into a woman. She can't speak and still has some turtle-like characteristics, but the man falls in love with her and the pair decide to stay put, prompting the film to shift forward in time a couple of years to reveal they now have a young son. We then follow their lives as a family and watch the development of the boy into a man, who sets his sights beyond the island.
Thankfully The Red Turtle lived up to the hype I'd built in my head. It's almost overwhelmingly beautiful. Backgrounds are elegantly painted and rich with colour. The depiction of life on the island, through animation, is wonderful, with the various creatures living with the man made to move realistically yet full of character. The character design is fairly basic, but works perfectly in the context of this fairly simple fable.
The story is indeed simple, but it's a film with hidden depths. There's no single clear message here as you might expect, about the environment or similar, at least not that I spotted. Instead, the lightly fantastical story lets the audience ask questions about survival, love and 'settling down', as well as man's relationship with nature. I even thought a later segment when a tidal wave ravages the island brought forth post-apocalyptic imagery, so perhaps a comment on nuclear warfare could be read into the film too.
It's not a dry think-piece though and doesn't feel ponderous or pretentious. The craft on display is so stunning you can simply get swept up in the basic story of survival and enjoy the experience. The film is kept short too and doesn't linger on anything, moving rapidly forward in time on a couple of occasions.
It's not only the visuals that impress either. It's a film completely devoid of dialogue (other than some grunts and cries that justify the cast list above), so relies greatly on sound design and music to carry you through. The former is stunningly crafted. Perhaps it was the lack of dialogue which made me pay more attention to it, but the sound design here is incredibly rich, truly evoking the wild environment the protagonist is inhabiting. The music, by Laurent Perez Del Mar, is hauntingly beautiful and quietly poignant for the most part, although it hits some cues later on that verge on being over-baked.
Despite its beautiful presentation, it's not a particularly sweet or sentimental film. It doesn't shy away from the brutality of nature, with reminders of the fragility of life cropping up regularly. There are even a couple of tense and genuinely frightening sequences too, such as the aforementioned tidal wave and a claustrophobic scene when the man falls into a blocked off pool and is forced to attempt escape through a small hole that may or may not provide a wide and short enough path to the open sea.
Taken as a whole, I couldn't always see what it all 'meant', but regardless, I couldn't look away for a second. It's transcendently beautiful throughout as it lets you make your own theories about life in its various incarnations. It's a film that's very simple in terms of narrative and form, but can become a deeper experience should you wish. If that doesn't interest you though, you can simply sit back and bask in its beauty.
The Red Turtle is out on digital download on 18th September and Blu-Ray & DVD on 25th September in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds fantastic. Blown up on a big screen you can see a subtle texture on the image, like paper, and the 5.1 mix does a wonderful job of the richly layered sound design. The only special feature is a fairly short video showing how de Wit designed and drew the characters of the film. It's a nice addition, but I've had liked to have heard more about the film's content and intended meaning.