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Red Turtle, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Simple but also mythic."
5 stars

The Studio Ghibli logo at the start of "The Red Turtle" invites a lot of commentary on its own, representing as it does Japan’s most beloved animation studio giving a boost to up and coming animators worldwide in the wake of its founders’ retirements. But while most watching the movie will have just the vaguest idea of what sort of guidance Isao Takahata gave director Michael Dudok de Wit, we can certainly appreciate the signal boost the Ghibli name gives it, as this is the sort of beautiful but unconventional animated film that might otherwise struggle to find the visibility it deserves.

It is clearly a different beast from many other animated films visually, most notably for the black dots that serve as the eyes on the characters’ faces, a design quirk that combined with fairly realistic proportions may remind the audience of Tintin or other European comics that add a dash of artistic license to carefully-rendered images to simultaneously ground their world and hint that things out of the ordinary can happen. De Wit and his animators fill the movie with beautiful draftsmanship that can capture tremendous detail but will often sacrifice it for effect - consider the opening act of the movie, when a nameless castaway has just arrived on an island and the relatively plain rocks he climbs on and carefully chosen backgrounds give an impression of him being shrunken, surrounded by danger too large to fight, though he will fit the setting better later on without much visual change.

The man’s story is, of necessity, fairly simple - the lifeboat he’s in has been smashed, but he is able to land on an island relatively protected by a sandbar and with sources of food and fresh water. Naturally, he tries to build rafts and escape - there is plenty of bamboo - but something unseen keeps smashes them just before he gets too far to return to shore, eventually revealed as a large red turtle. Furious, he fights back, only to be surprised when a beautiful young woman appears on the island with little explanation.

Not that one is exactly needed; even without narration or conversation, de Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran give the impression that a turtle like this can be a type of sea god (its size and coloration in comparison to the hatchlings the man watches run to the water stick in the viewer’s mind), and that gives the story a mythological feel that works well with the decision to eschew dialogue: Even as the story changes from a higher being keeping this human as a pet to something else - a love story which plays upon a myth common to many belief systems - language is rendered somewhat irrelevant. Popping into existence a fully-formed adult, the woman may not be able to learn such things, and by the time a son comes along, the man may be out of practice. The spiritual tack de Wit takes (in some ways intriguingly similar to Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) suggests that in some ways the burden of language is a reminder of complexities that the couple must reject in order to come together and live in the present; the pictures the man draws for his son are enough to communicate the ideas that they need to get across.

The imagery de Wit and his animators create is equally impressive in its simplicity - it’s often got the look of being hand-drawn though it is likely made with digital tools, and there’s a wonderful smoothness and natural feel to the way people move that nevertheless doesn’t have the feel of rotoscoping. Important details come across as part of action, and the animators integrate things not often seen in this sort of animation so seamlessly that it may pass the audience by. The clarity of the water, for instance, is amazing; where other animated films strive to give it texture or highlight its border when still, this one creates the illusion of looking through it and maybe not knowing quite how deep it is. The coloring is also amazing: Hope and happiness will often result in the image popping into color-with-an-exclamation-mark, and it’s likely telling how much of the last act happens at night, where the color never quite feels absent but is certainly faded.

It’s a natural way to bring the film to its close, although in the closing minutes some viewers might feel a little let down by how, despite the exotic environment and fantastical events, "The Red Turtle" is a rather passive film, dedicated to being satisfied with the life one finds. Others, though, will take that lesson to heart and marvel at the wonderful ways in which de Wit presents the idea, creating a film of simple beauty meant to be experienced rather than solved.

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originally posted: 03/02/17 16:48:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2016 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2016 AFI Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 02-May-2017


  DVD: 02-May-2017

Directed by
  Michael Dudok de Wit

Written by
  Pascale Ferran
  Michael Dudok de Wit


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