2016 was a year alright. A year that will be remembered in many people’s eyes as a crap one. A Neo Nazi became president of the United States, Brexit made our Kingdom no longer a United one, and many awesome artists and personalities passed away, including David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Prince, George Micheal, Isao Tomita, Alan Rickman and Anton Yelchin, just to name but a few. This negative attitude also permeated through a lot of the general consensus of the film releases of 2016, with blockbusters such as Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, Independence Day Resurgence and that Ben Hur remake no one asked for were films that put film buffs in a sour state of mind. However, if one looks outside the box, it was honestly a pretty good year for indie cinema, with films such as The Witch, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Nocturnal Animals, Swiss Army Man and The Neon Demon being films that not only ended up being surprise sleeper hits, but will likely be more fondly remembered than the 200th comic book superhero origin story.
When it came to animated theatrical releases, there were films such as Zootropolis, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings, Your Name and Anomalisa that not only showed that the medium is alive and well, but can also tackle a variety of topics in limitless ways that live action cannot. At the Canne film festival in May 2016, there was the debut of The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rogue in French), which is a unique film for a few reasons. For one, it is the first International co-production of legendary Anime company, Studio Ghibli, collaborating with Why Not Productions and The Wild Bunch. It is directed by Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, who won several awards for his short film, Father and Daughter (2000), and much like his previous work, is told entirely without dialogue, allowing the visuals and sound to do the talking.
Beginning with a Studio Ghibli logo, this time in red, in deference to the films title, the film starts in media res, with the main protagonist caught in an intense tsunami on a stormy night. While the man tries very hard to get back to his boat, the powerful tsunami casts him him away to a deserted tropical island in the middle of the vast ocean. The man wakes up stranded on the beach and starts to explore the island, observing the nature, flora and fauna surrounding him. He tries to drink water, eat food and gather resources in an effort to survive the storms. Failing to find signs of human life, he desperately calls for help. Struck with loneliness, the man tries over and over again to escape the island by building a raft allowing him to go back to civilization. However, all of these attempts fail leaving him completely isolated and in turn, questioning his existence. Under mysterious circumstances, the man eventually discovers the presence of the titular Red Turtle.
The premise of The Red Turtle does make it seem similar to other adventure stories focusing on the aspect of survival, such as the film Cast Away and the Daniel Defoe novel, Robinson Crusoe. In terms of execution, the film contains many elements that are allegorical, fantastical, surrealist and symbolic. Coincidently, the Turtle also shares the same colour as Wilson from Cast Away. There are only a few characters, and instead of relying on three-hour long origin stories or tie in novels, the characterization is simple yet effectively executed, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks.
Despite the dialogue free nature of the story, the film, penned by Pascale Ferran (Bird People), manages to cover a lot of ground in its 80 minute run time, allowing the viewer to get immersed into the world, and has a lot of elements that can be interpreted in a number of ways. It beautifully manages to explore topics such as the human condition, mankind’s place in nature, the cycle of life, and companionship in ways that are poetic and emotionally captivating. The simple premise coupled with languid pacing and with rich symbolism make the film stand out, especially compared to the ADHD candy coloured toy adverts coming out of America.
The animation in The Red Turtle is a beautiful hand drawn marvel with much to admire. The forests, beaches, fields, trees, caverns and ocean are all meticulously created with a naturalistic flair, which makes sense given the body of Ghibli’s output, especially the films of Hayao Miyazaki, tend to deal with nature. Thanks to the impressive work overseen by Emma McCann (The Illusionist), the backgrounds in this film are otherworldly, dreamlike and feel delicately created in a way that completely complements the atmosphere and the themes the film evokes. Also, one can’t forget to mention the stunning colour work done by Alexis Liddell (A Monster Calls), which is soft on the eyes, beautifully integrated into the background, and manages to create an impressionistic quality that modern CGI animation simply cannot achieve as effectively.
There are some sequences where one colour dominates the canvas, such as a dream sequence set at night, and the ocean and sky are shown in a way where it represents the psychological state of the character in not only a symbolic sense, but in an effective way that helps with the mood.
The cinematography is very impressive, with great framing used to effectively create a sense of vulnerability, and to show the vastness of the luscious landscapes, helping with the film’s overall calm, meditative and introspective tone.
The character animation is lyrical and like a lot of the visual aspects, done with great care and detail, that rely less on exaggerated gestures and instead on small naturalistic movements, allowing the viewer to be immersed in the world. The actual designs are the part of the aesthetic that shows that this is a Ghibli co-production, as Yoshiyuki Momose, Ghibli’s usual character designer, wasn’t involved. The characters are drawn in the Ligne Claire style pioneered by Herge, so much like the designs in Tintin, the characters are drawn in a simplistic fashion with black dots for eyes, while still allowing room for strong usage of emotion. The designs of the animals are sublime, with the crabs, seals, birds and other wildlife which have been captured with loving detail, while having excellently crafted movement that feels very believable.
Compared to glossy CG animation that ages much faster, the luscious hand drawn animation, background work and designs give the film a timeless quality, meaning one can revisit this film in a decade and still be stunned by all the effort that has gone into the visual presentation.
While the characters do shout and make the odd gasp and grunt noises, the most noticeable sound that can be heard is breathing. This is strangely refreshing for an animated production, as this allows the audience to connect to the characters and makes them feel more real.
The environment sound design is interwoven very well into the soundtrack and the visuals, as they make the world the characters inhabit feel mysterious yet familiar. The sound of rain, wind, waves and wildlife add a slot of subtle touches to the film, allowing certain sequences to feel akin to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Yasujiro Ozu.
The film’s soundtrack was composed and written by Laurent Perez Del Mar (Zarafa, Fear(s) of the Dark), and it’s this score that truly support the film to find it’s voice. Whenever the music appeared, it was there to effectively enhance the scene, weather it was hopeful and happy, gentle and sedate, tender and emotional or thoughtful and meditative. The combination of cellos, opera vocals, strings, flutes and piano have a quality akin to the work of James Horner, Thomas Newman, Joe Hisaishi and Ennio Morricone. It is a stirring and beautiful soundtrack that helps the movie express its themes and emotions with sublime execution.
In a year that has been full of great releases in the animation medium, few manage to stand out as much as The Red Turtle. Michael Dudok de Wit has managed to take a stab at making a feature length production gracefully, and with the help of one of the most adored animation studios in the world, has managed to create a film that shows the power of animation as a purely visual medium for storytelling. The Red Turtle succeeds as a piece of cinema, featuring thought provoking themes, stunning cinematography, a brilliant soundtrack, gorgeous animation and solid pacing that makes it a beautiful, emotional, engaging and much needed breath of fresh air. This film is an impressionistic fable that paints a canvas worth exploring.
If I have piqued your interest in this film, you can go to Amazon.fr and grab a copy of the Blu-ray release, which is import friendly, due to the wordless nature of the film.
It is also worth noting that this release also comes with De Wits earlier short films remastered in HD from the original materials. Unfortunately, there are no English subtitles for the making of documentary.
The Red Turtle will also be given a UK theatrical release on May 26th, 2017 by Studio Canal, and this is a film you will definitely want to see on in the cinema, thanks the stunning sound design and animation.