Despite my love of animation, I sadly admit that I’m not too privy on too many foreign animated films. Aside from standard anime TV shows like DRAGON BALL Z and RUROUNI KENSHIN and a select few others, I can’t say I’m a fan. By meaning, I can’t be a fan of something if I’m not familiar with it, as opposed to having something against the material itself. It’s only been these last few years where I’ve taken more of an interest in seeing these types of films from these talented animators and storytellers. Gotta make time for that someday.
Having said all that, Studio Ghibli is actually one I’m at least slightly familiar with. I grew up on the film MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988) and still fondly remember it and I did see HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004) a few years ago, not remembering that one too much, other than Christian Bale voicing Howl. And I still kick myself for not having seen THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY (2010). Beyond that, I’ve only heard of such popular films like KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989), PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997), SPIRITED AWAY (2001), and PONYO (2008), but never actually saw them. Interested, but simply haven’t made the time to watch.
In this case, I am happy to have finally found this film playing… somewhat near me. It’s been nominated for an Oscar, for crying out loud! And… from the look of the trailer, I can see why. It looks gorgeous. Simple animation, but very expressive and looks to be more focused on being an experience, rather than a full-blown story as I traditionally know it. And personally, I’m okay with that. Different films are a rare treat, especially if done well, and this looks amazing. It seems like it’s about this castaway guy who winds up on an island, can’t get off for some reason, meets what I can only assume is a mermaid, and stays on the island to be with her and raise their family. I’m sure it’s more layered than that, but we’ll see. Oh, and no dialog? Risky, but ambitious, resulting in beyond intriguing.
Also, just found out, this is actually co-created between Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch, so I guess it’s… not a straight-up Ghibli production. In fact, it seems like it’s more of a French film than anything, but oh well. Gorgeous-looking movie, don’t really care too much. Onward.
As the movie has no dialog, there’s no cast to list, so I’ll just move on to the crew. Directing and co-writing is Michael Dudok de Wit, making his feature-length debut. Congrats, sir. And co-writing is Pascale Ferran, known for… a bunch of French films that I’ve never heard of.
I’m sure I’m in for a unique and wonderful experience, so enough yammering from me.
This is my honest opinion of: THE RED TURTLE
The story opens on a man lost at sea during a vicious storm. He wakes up to find himself alone on a deserted island where he learns to survive and even manages to build a raft to get him home. However, he fails to escape three times and eventually comes across a beautiful woman in the sea. The two fall in love and he learns to accept his place on the island to eventually raise his son and endure life on this island with his family.
This film absolutely met my expectations, and it is certainly more layered than I made it out to be in my summary.
The animation in this movie is downright gorgeous. The character designs are simply drawn, but still expressive enough to carry across what the character is feeling at all times. Despite not a single line of dialog written for it, you’re never lost in what these characters are saying, making this probably one of the most impressive animated films I’ve ever seen.
Despite the simple design of the characters, the rest of the foreground and background are a different matter, I noticed. The crabs are drawn with surprising detail. The movement of the ocean, the rustling of the plants, it’s all done so beautifully. Even when you see fish swimming in the water, they look like they’re moving like real fish would. The attention to that kind of detail, even when it’s not the focus of that particular shot is truly outstanding. You can tell there was a ton of passion thrown into this and it pays off huge.
Speaking of the animals here, I just want to take a minute to talk about these damn crabs. They’re hilarious. The most wonderfully surprising comic relief of this movie. All they do is bunch together and observe what the man does. They don’t get in his way, or attack him, or help him, nothing like that, they just… watch him and for some reason it tickled me. There’s even this running gag with these two crabs fighting over this stem with a leaf on it. Why are they fighting for this thing? I don’t know! Crab reasons! I don’t care, I will jokingly refer to that as the true drama of this picture. Oh, and there’s even a hint of dark humor too. Like when the man and woman’s son is an infant, he comes across one of the crabs and just launches it in his mouth, chews a little, then spits it out. The crab is otherwise fine and the boy leaves it alone… and then… SWOOP! A seagull nabs it! Why didn’t Alistair tell these crabs that swooping is bad?! (Sorry, DRAGON AGE reference. Most of you won’t get that.) But again, little dashes of humor like that make for an incredible visceral experience and these crabs only added to an already amazing film.
I’m sure this movie is heavy on symbolism that went over my head, but tell me if anyone else might have made a similar observation that I did. It’s established that “The Red Turtle” is the woman. The man attacks the turtle on his raft before it’s destroyed and then flips the turtle over in a fit of rage for what it did. He essentially lets it die and when it turns into the woman, he tries to save it. When the woman is revealed to be okay, she’s seen taking her turtle shell and sending it off to sea. Did anyone else get a funeral vibe from that moment? My initial thought was that the woman represented mother nature, and the man is learning to respect his environment and it’s inhabitants. He clearly feels remorse for his actions, and he wanted to correct his mistake, but failed to do so. Instead, nature became something he’d end up loving and with that love, created new life, bolder, braver, more resourceful, and nature ultimately forgiving the man for his actions and moving past it. I think there’s something incredibly powerful here, especially at the end when the man dies and the woman turns back into the turtle and returns to the sea, leaving behind a beautiful life that she wouldn’t have had if she hadn’t forgiven him.
What I ultimately got out of it was, humans have harmed nature. Nature acknowledges why we do it, and knows that we try to correct it. But this is that hindsight that if we took a moment to stop harming nature and learned to love it and stand beside it, we can create a brighter and even better future, represented by their child. But even the movie seems to say that this is just a dream because the boy does swim away from the island, for subjective reasons, and his fate ultimately left ambiguous. It’s like the movie is saying it knows this perfect harmony is just a dream, but what a marvelous reality it could be for both sides. I don’t know, that’s what I took away from it, and I’d like to know anyone else’s opinion.
Overall, if I had seen this movie in 2016, it’d be in my top ten. But as the movie wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2017 – to my knowledge – I’m putting it down as a 2017 film. Folks, this is a beautiful film. Breath-taking. Simple, but profound. Not a line of dialog, but speaks to the deepest recesses of the soul. Did that sound cheesy? Well that’s the effect a movie should have on you. The movie’s been out for more than a month, so I regrettably can’t recommend to go see it. Unless… you do have it in a theatre near you, then drop what you’re doing and make plans for the next showtime. But if you miss it, rent it, then buy it. I think it’s that amazing.
My honest rating for THE RED TURTLE: 5/5