The Red Turtle tells the tale of a nameless castaway and his relationship with the titular turtle, who repeatedly frustrates his plans to escape his desert island. And that’s all you need to know – to say much more in the way of plot would be to spoil this dreamlike tale of remorse and man’s relationship with nature.
At first, the pre-credits appearance of the famous Totoro mascot, signalling the film as a Studio Ghibli production, may seem misleading. Told in a minimalist style with no dialogue and character designs that resemble those of Tintin artist Hergé, The Red Turtle initially feels worlds away from the creations of Ghibli directors like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. But in many ways the debut film of Belgian director Michael Dudok de Wit has more in common with Japanese animation than European: felt in its slow pacing, its striking use of negative space, and in the themes of metamorphosis and nature that so frequently appear in Studio Ghibli films.
Also important to the Ghibli connection are the little details, irrelevant to the story but essential to the mood. The stars here are a group of beach crabs, whose shenanigans often amusingly echo the narrative. They recall the tree-dwelling kodama of Princess Mononoke or the sentient sootballs of Spirited Away, although when one crab is plucked by a hungry gull we are not sure whether it is meant to be funny or sad. The unfortunate crab’s demise is just one of many deaths that punctuate the film – a lifeless fish, seal and baby turtle included. Mortality haunts the narrative, but The Red Turtle doesn’t collapse into existentialism, nor a clichéd tale of survival. And all the better for it; in the rare moments of danger, it really feels as if something is at stake.
The animation is gorgeous, capturing light and shadow and reflections in a way that feels at once naturalistic and magical. Days are coloured in a muted greens and blues, nights rendered in beautiful monochrome. Providing a welcome contrast, the bright red of the turtle herself is truly something to behold. Perhaps most impressive is the way in which we really get a feel for the geography of the island, from its bamboo forest to its hidden pools.
Some will find the relaxed pace hard to endure, and the lack of dialogue, though immensely effective in the first act, limits the plausibility of the romantic element of the film. But although slow and spare, the simplicity of The Red Turtle is part of its poetic charm. It’s a film that says a lot with very little, and one worthy of the Ghibli banner.
Image: Studio Canal