Three stars. Rated PG, for mild dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang
This one’s a head-scratcher.
It’s important to note that The Red Turtle is only sponsored by Japan’s Studio Ghibli; the film is directed and co-written by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. Thus, the style and palette are nothing like the vibrant, watercolor fantasies made famous by Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki; the texture and atmosphere here are much more subdued, and the detail work is noticeably sub-par.
|When the man finally confronts the mystical beast that has been foiling his attempts to|
leave the island on which he has been marooned, their initial confrontation is pregnant
with implication ... none of which the film addresses to any degree.
Indeed, Dudok de Wit’s figure composition strongly evokes the Tintin works of Belgian cartoonist Hergé (Georges Remi).
It’s essential to fall in love with the look of The Red Turtle — not an easy task — because that’s the film’s primary allure. Dudok de Wit is concerned primarily with mood and appearance; the actual narrative — which is exasperatingly vague — is of lesser consequence.
There’s also no dialog: none at all, aside from a few shouted protests or wordless exclamations of concern. Everything in this 80-minute film is conveyed via context, inference and body language. While Dudok de Wit can be congratulated for the occasional plot points that do emerge, solely via visuals, this technique does contribute to a tedious viewing experience.
The film’s numerous accolades and Academy Award nomination notwithstanding, I can’t see it becoming a much-viewed classic.
The story begins as a lone man is washed ashore on a deserted island. We never get his name, nor do we learn anything about him, aside from the reasonable survival skills that suggest he’s a sailor. Of the circumstances that dumped him into the ocean, we know nothing.
The partially forested island provides sufficient food and fresh water; the man quickly sets about constructing a raft from downed tree wood. But his effort to sail beyond a surrounding reef is scuttled when some large, unseen, undersea something whomps against the raft and scatters it into scores of pieces.
Undeterred, the man builds another raft, and tries again. Same result.
Something doesn’t want him to leave. Something in the sea? The spirit of the island itself?
Get used to such questions, because this film is full of them. None gets answered.
A third rafting attempt finally reveals the water-based agent of destruction: a huge red turtle that surfaces and stares, impassively and unblinkingly, at the man. It’s the film’s signature image, the sea creature’s brilliant crimson a striking contrast to the duller earth tones that characterize most of the visuals.
The man returns the look, frozen and anxious, waiting for what comes next. Which is another destroyed raft.
Shattered, emotionally spent, he swims back to the island and collapses.
What happens next slides into the realm of magic fantasy: a huge leap based, to a great degree, on the selkies of Irish and Scottish folklore. This fantastical occurrence allows the man to abandon efforts to leave, instead enjoying a long and (we assume) satisfied life on the island.
As this is an unlikely romance, of sorts, it could be argued that the island has encouraged the man to fall in love with it — with nature — by creating a personification that eases this process.
Alternatively — and I tend to favor this reading — perhaps everything from the second act onward is a nod to American author Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
Neither option is fully consistent with subsequent events; too many details are vague, and too many questions remain unanswered. A third-act catastrophe, in particular, feels pointless and needlessly contrived: an event that serves no purpose.
At the same time, surprisingly, viewers who hang on will be moved by the story’s poignant conclusion. I guess that’s a tribute to Dudok de Wit’s directorial skill, to evoke such emotion even under bewildering circumstances.
He earns some respect during the first act, with its nod to Robinson Crusoe, and our natural curiosity as the man explores and attempts to master his environment. His sole companions are tiny sand crabs, which function throughout as droll comic relief, particularly when one crab keeps taunting another by waving a bit of vegetation.
But we become far too invested in fresh appearances by those crabs, as we crawl past the first act; they’re the only element that brings some life and personality to the film.
Dudok de Wit employs a blend of animation styles, neither very impressive. The various island backdrops appear pencil-sketchy, often with an impression of wood grain. Very few distinct settings are employed — beach, ocean, forest, cliff faces — and they’re mostly static and frequently repeated, often in slow, inert long shots. Major yawn.
The man almost never is seen in close-up, which minimizes any need for subtle facial expressions. His dreams and nightmares emerge in monochrome; his waking activities take place in subdued yellows (beach sand), greens (forest) and light blues (ocean).
The various rafts, in contrast, clearly are digital creations; they have a fluidity of movement absent from the island elements.
More than these various tableaus, though, the film gets much of its atmospheric impact from the careful use of sound effects: the wind rustling through the leaves of the forest trees; the slight, crunching footfall echoes when the man explores these woods; the whooshing patter of thousands of raindrops during a sudden squall.
Laurent Perez Del Mar’s instrumental underscore is subtle and sparingly employed, mostly to enhance the quiet tension of a given moment.
But it’s all too precious, too deliberately stylized, too laborious, too vague. The frequent black-outs, employed to mark the passage of time, further slow the already sluggish pace. All the critical love notwithstanding, I can’t help feeling that many viewers will share my regret, once the film concludes, that the destination wasn’t worth the journey ... and that there are far better ways to spend 80 minutes.