A black screen. Red text. A red screen. A black, familiar logo. There’s something incredibly reassuring about the Studio Ghibli logo. It’s like an old mate patting you on the back and saying ‘Alright fella?’ And you smile and repeat the words to your pal. You’re in good hands and you know the day is going to be a good one. It’s not a 100% Ghibli production though, as Wild Bunch co-produced the film, whilst a UK-based Dutch animator, Michaël Dudok de Wit, co-wrote (with Pascale Ferran) and directed the feature. The French-Belgian-Japanese collaboration was nominated at Cannes and at the Academy Awards (it should’ve won at both), The Red Turtle is de Wit’s debut feature after a series of shorts, including Father and Daughter which, back in 2001, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
We open with a blue-grey, choppy and hazardous ocean engulfing a man and leaving him marooned on a desert island. We don’t know the circumstances of his shipwreck, nor his background or even his name; although he instantly reminded me of Robbie Collin – must be the beard. The island itself is oddly shaped in the form of a whale and is home to a chorus of crabs, whose scuttling movements are heard throughout the film with the notable absence of dialogue. Indeed, the omission of words and language (excluding one or two uses of “hey!” or angry outbursts), only heightens the protagonist’s (and the audience’s) sense of isolation and loneliness, in a similar fashion to Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000).
Naturally, his first thoughts are that of escape and he uses bamboo – of which the tropical paradise boasts an abundant amount – to conjure a raft and float to freedom. His efforts are systematically scuppered by an unknown assailant and his raft is smashed to pieces. Twice, in fact. Undeterred, he builds a much larger raft and tries his luck again for a third time. Once again he is thwarted but this time, the saboteur is revealed; a very large, very red, turtle. Exhausted and beaten, the man returns to shore and collapses, but when our titular turtle wanders onto the shore, our antihero (and by now, we’re totally behind him), takes revenge by overturning the creature and leaving it to perish. Inevitable guilt and remorse soon follows, but it is too late for the giant sea beast. However, a magical, miraculous transformation occurs as the turtle’s shell falls away to reveal something wondrous, and instantly reminiscent of another wonderful animation, Song of the Sea (2015), from Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore.
Talking about this in further detail, although tempting and not technically a spoiler, would be disrespectful to the filmmakers and fellow cinephiles. It’s simply best to go and watch – and at the cinema too – don’t wait for a DVD release. Let’s just say the film explores the themes of life, death and re-birth is a beautifully mesmerising way. The use of colour – vibrant greens of the forest – brings life to the screen, and the island is alive and very “real”; spiders eat insects, bird prey on crabs, a seal lies motionless on shore. Even the use of monochrome, particularly during the nigh sequences is remarkably effective.
Enjoy the Hergé influenced clear line drawings, but also appreciate the use of CGI. When done well, it’s wonderful.
Allow composer Laurent Perez del Mar’s score to wash over you like a tsunami wave (there’s one of those too). A perfect accompaniment to the minimalist visuals, encompassing themes of love, death and heartbreak.
A silent, sumptuous, splendid, stunning and sublime piece of animation.