For film and anime fans, the release of a Studio Ghibli film is a major event. I’ve previously shouted praises for this studio’s dazzling animation and heartfelt storytelling in my review of Only Yesterday. When the studio went on hiatus, there was a fear this would be the end for Japan’s beloved studio. Now those fears are shut down with Hayao Miyazaki coming out of retirement for one more film. Until that film’s released, Ghibli’s distributing animation imports like The Red Turtle, a hypnotic survival story from the Netherlands.
The Red Turtle doesn’t waste any time jumping into the plot, starting with our hero already shipwrecked in the middle of a storm. After hanging onto a capsized lifeboat, the Man finds himself on a deserted island. There’s not even a volleyball to talk to, let alone a human being. So, he’s off to the sea on his makeshift boat. But every time he tries to set sail, a giant turtle comes and destroys it. The Man always returns, furious at his circumstances. When the turtle arrives on the island, he seizes the opportunity for revenge.
And where I’m faced with the reviewer’s dilemma; how much of the plot should I reveal? My inner critic tells me not to reveal anymore of the plot in fear of ruining the experience for any potential viewers. But then you have the trailer, which gives away that a woman will eventually end up on the island and they will have a son. But there’s a turn that gives the film a sense of magical realism that I won’t discuss any further. At its core, the film follows the straightforward Cast Away storyline with a little magic realism added to the mix.
What makes this film truly special is its style. I don’t know about you, but the animation style reminds me of the Adventures of Tintin. To see this island is to be taken in by the design’s realistic beauty. You can’t help by be taken in by the high palm trees and the flow of the waves. Like Herge, the film contrasts the detailed environment with the simple character designs. The character’s certainly look like they came out of a Tintin episode. This shouldn’t work, but these two styles blend into each other. Despite having no dialogue in this movie, the characters a lot with their body language. Kudos to the character animators.
With exception to the opening shipwreck and a tsunami, the most memorable moments are the small moments, especially with the crabs. There’s surprising beauty in the little moment of the man feeding the crabs a bit of his food. The crabs also have some amusing moments, especially when one tries to fit a dead fish into its hole. The film’s best moments are the dream sequences. Animated in black and white, we are treated to enchanting moments of the Man flying across a long dock.
Despite an short screen time of eighty minutes, writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit takes his time telling the story. The results are a meditative visual experience that sucks you in with its beautiful animation. Underneath this simple survival storyline is a complex allegory of living. I imagine there will be video essays and film classes applying themes of domestic living, death and guilt to The Red Turtle. Those who don’t care for metaphors can still be taken in by the beauty of both the animation and the humanity. I hope Studio Ghibli keeps distributing more animated films from around the world.