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Review: The Red Turtle
Print Editor Joe Ryan reviews the Oscar-nominated animation that wordlessly meditates on life, death and everything in between
After concern that the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli in 2016 was the beginning of the end for the illustrious animation studio, The Red Turtle is a distinct sign, if one were needed, that the title of bastion of hand-drawn wondrous fantasy cannot easily be wrestled from the hands of Japan's most famous cinematic export.
“Narrative and story are merely bit players in this 80-minute tone poem
Time and place unknown, a nameless man of unknown origin washes up on the shores of an unnamed island, untouched by humans until this point. Stranded with only the island’s comic-relief crabs for company, the man sets about building a raft to escape. However, upon setting sail, his raft is destroyed by an unseen force. Perspective thus gained, a larger raft is built, with the same result. Things continue until it is discovered that a giant red turtle is responsible. Upon finding the turtle on the beach the frustrated cast-away flips the turtle onto its back and events take a magical turn.
Within the first few minutes of The Red Turtle, it becomes clear that narrative and story are merely bit players in this 80-minute tone poem. Director Michael Dudok de Wit’s passion project offers a potential meditation on the milestones of human life, a magical-realist exploration of grief and regret or a bitter-sweet tale of death and rebirth, depending entirely on audience perspective. The film’s ethereal presentation and meandering pace are more evocative of mood and mise-en-scène, defying concrete interpretation. In this way, The Red Turtle is a film made to be experienced; made to be watched. And I do mean watched. With no dialogue or language to speak of, the film plays on the universal accessibility of silent cinema to present an experience that is broadly applicable and yet deeply personal.
“The stellar visual presentation is complemented by a beautiful score that oscillates between peaceful lulls and a swelling crescendo
All of this is conveyed through captivating visuals and animation (an inspired mix of computer-generated and hand-drawn styles) which bring the island and its inhabitants to life with a striking colour palette and stunning use of light and shade. The simplistic, childlike features of the cast-away’s face belie his expressive body language and movement and contrast with the muted, chalky bark of a thick bamboo forest stretching back into foreboding darkness. All of this takes place under a watercolour sky with an almost tangible papery texture. The sunsets are stunning and the underwater sequences balletic. The stellar visual presentation is complemented by a beautiful score that oscillates between peaceful lulls and a swelling crescendo that repeats during the film’s most impactful sequences.
The film falters in a few regards, chief amongst which is the contrived way characters are deprived of their voice. The homage to silent cinema is charming (becoming particularly direct during the monochromatic night-time scenes) yet it maintains a stubborn veneer of artifice that the film otherwise so successfully demolishes. Furthermore, as the film moves into its second act, the pace plummets as the film shifts tone drastically. This transition heralds the arrival of more allegorical subject matter and is clumsily handled to the extent that it is not difficult to quickly become baffled by the film as it shifts into abject mysticism.
VERDICT: The Red Turtle is a visually captivating, emotionally evocative experience. Technically, it is a film, but labelling it such would be to do it a disservice. Instead, it is a story steeped in the language of cinema that is more concerned with the emotional impact of images than with traditional story-telling. Despite a few missteps, The Red Turtle is an easy recommendation with potentially universal appeal.