Expectations are high whenever you see a Studio Ghibli ident at the start of an animation. They’re arguably even higher now the studio has all but shut up shop. The Red Turtle isn’t a homegrown Ghibli film, but it bears studio legend Isao Takahata as its creative supervisor, so the influence of the Japanese animation house is felt strongly.
The themes of man existing alongside and sometimes in conflict with nature are front and centre, as well as a pride in the virtues of visual storytelling. The Red Turtle features a few panicked shouts as its closest thing to dialogue and is all the stronger for it, creating a mythic framework that would be diluted by too many words.
The sense of mystery is strong throughout, but once you get beyond the first half-hour that starts to grate. Sure, we may not need to know our hero’s name or why he’s shipwrecked; the titular turtle’s unexplained vendetta may feel deliciously sinister (and strangely akin to Duel), but when people start turning into turtles left, right and centre you can’t help but cry out for some context.
The Red Turtle has a flimsy and frustrating story, but the sensory experience it offers is second to none. Director Michaël Dudok de Wit deserves just as much praise as any of Ghibli, Pixar or Laika’s masterminds when it comes to crafting animated spectacle. His characters are swamped by swathes of sand and sky that have an irresistible pointillist texture, and they’re filled with colours as rich and subtle as any cinematographer could produce with a camera.
Dudok de Wit doesn’t just know how to create beautiful images, he knows how to pull them together for tension and heartbreak as well. Sadly the story he’s illustrating isn’t anything like as inspiring as his animation.
DIRECTOR: Michaël Dudok de Wit
WRITERS: Pascale Ferran (screenplay), Michaël Dudok de Wit (story & screenplay)
SYNOPSIS: A shipwrecked man tries to leave the island he now calls home, but finds his escape thwarted by a red turtle. As he settles onto the island, the turtle takes on a mythic significance in his life.