The Red Turtle is a unique and superbly executed 2D animated cinema experience incorporating a strange, mystical and moving story of death and renewal.
The Red Turtle is the result of a collaboration between Japanese animation company Studio Ghibili and Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. This cultural fusion of East and West has spawned something beautiful, moving and quite unique.
Visually, the piece is at once simple and complex, with the 2D graphics seemingly hand drawn. The lead character is a castaway without clearly defined features, his eyes two black dots, beak-like nose dashed off in two quick strokes. By contrast, the natural environment of the deserted tropical island on which he is stranded is rendered in realistic detail. There is a tactile quality to the finely textured beach sand and the clear tropical water lapping at its edge, for example, which seems to fire the imaginative response of a poet in the viewer. There’s a sense of being projected into the environment, of sharing the sensory experience of the lead character – the feel of the sand on the soles of his feet as he walks along the beach, the immersive cool of the crystal sea when he enters it. Whether others will be affected in the same way I cannot say, but I do not recall ever having had such a tactile response to a film, let alone an animated one. Quite extraordinary.
The theme of death and renewal runs through Dudok de Wit’s story, which has an ancient, culturally embedded quality about it. It has the deceptive simplicity of a religious parable or a traditional folk tale, but without yielding up any obvious underlying meaning. It invites yet evades an allegorical interpretation. It feels somehow archetypal; its meaning is itself, irreducible, unexpandable.
There are magical elements to the tale, which I will not divulge. If ever there was a case for avoiding spoilers, this is it. Here are the basics of the story.
The shipwrecked man staggers out of the ocean at the beginning, and hauls himself up the beach. We learn nothing of his background (there is no dialogue, although the piece is augmented by the sounds of nature and an unobtrusive but brilliantly effective soundtrack). With his only company a scuttling brace of cute little crabs who watch his every move, he determines to find his way back to civilisation, taking to the sea in hand-hewn bamboo rafts. His efforts are thwarted by an initially unseen huge red turtle, but this mysterious creature, his enemy, ultimately proves to be the agency of his salvation, mystically manifesting a female mate for him. That which he fought so hard against – remaining stranded on the island – becomes his destiny. The couple have a child, and make a life for themselves.
Although the natural environment is initially portrayed as idyllic, the island is no Eden. The environment turns deadly when a tsunami hits with devastating force, threatening the annihilation of the family. And there is an unforgettable scene early on, when the man slips down a rock crevice into a sea pool far below. With no way of climbing out of his predicament, he is forced to take a life-or-death gamble, and swim into an underwater tunnel in the hope it will lead to the sea outside. Claustrophobics beware! This is hard to watch. I found myself holding my breath with the character, as he squeezed himself through the narrowest of openings in quest of escape.
While The Red Turtle is a unique work of superbly executed and very beautiful 2D animation, don’t expect spectacular fast-action graphics. This is a quieter, gentler style of animation than is typical of the big Hollywood studios, and indeed, stylistically and thematically also a departure from previous Studio Ghibili productions – at least those with which I am familiar.
A cinematic experience of great poetic and emotional power, and an absolute must-see for animation fans. Highly recommended.
The Red Turtle will probably not make it on to the wider commercial cinema circuit, so do make an effort to catch it during its season at the 2016-17 Perth International Film Festival (program details below).
Movie website: http://sonyclassics.com/theredturtle/
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