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Red Turtle, The (2016)

Surely the summer's most unusual 'go-see' is Michaël Dudok De Wit’s The Red Turtle, a subtle and beautiful work of magic realism, and a masterful piece of animation.

The movie, which has garnered a slew of nominations and several awards for its creator, tells the tale of a castaway on a tropical island whose encounter with a giant red turtle transforms and then, ultimately, completes his life.

The Red Turtle is not only the first  co-production by Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli (famous for features such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro) with a non-Japanese co-creator, but is also Dudok De Wit’s first feature, the Dutch-born animator having had a notable career thus far in shorts, the best-known being  Father and Daughter, which took the Oscar for Best Short Film at 2001’s Academy Awards.

Ghibli’s play to Dudok De Wit was to say they thought his style was “very Japanese” and later, in typically inscrutable Japanese manner, managing to entirely avoid explaining exactly what that meant when asked. 

Dudok De Wit’s guess is that Ghibli’s interest was piqued by his use of space, a characteristic of Japanese art in general and a marker of many Ghibli features, but this is to underplay what he demonstrates here; a thorough command of his workspace, with one hand always delicately-poised on the dial of human emotion.

The new island home of our nameless protagonist is no tropical paradise, just a featureless hump of rock jutting from the pitiless ocean, girdled by a bleak bamboo forest and wide sweeps of desolate beach. Beyond the bamboo, and the thick moss which grows around an inland pool which provides fresh water, there seems to be no other vegetation. Animal life is confined to flocks of distant birds and a cast of curious, dead-white crabs whose antics provide the movie’s fleeting moments of comic relief.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a traditional survival tale. Our man never builds a fire, nor a shelter. He subsists on fruit, but the crabs only get fed by him, not eaten themselves. From the first scene where he is buffeted by walls of water in the torrid ocean, to his almost-drowning in a tsunami, we are never left in any doubt about his powerlessness in the face of nature.

Through our protagonist's anonymity, the lack of any dialogue and the backdrop of the bland island The Red Turtle allows us to move beyond Anglo-Saxon notions of the ultimate power of human agency and reflect on our own inner world. What tale will we inscribe on the blank canvas of our life? 

Not that the movie is a heavy watch; it can be seen as a simple, beautiful parable of love, or a deep-dive into man’s struggle to define himself, of the futility of identity where there are no observers to validate our existence; or indeed anything in-between.

Does the turtle save him or trap him? Does she show him the true meaning of happiness? Does she even exist? Does it matter? You decide.

True devotees of the craft of animation should not miss The Red Turtle, and fans will love De Wit’s delicate colour palette, extravagant use of space and silence and his sparse, confident storytelling. As with Ghibli’s creations, this is mainly hand-drawn, with CG only used to render the turtle and our protagonist’s useless bamboo rafts, the better to create clean lines when patterned objects turn in 3D space.

The Red Turtle is not, though, any kind of Ghibli knock-off. The Japanese studio let De Wit and his team of French (and some Hungarian) animators dictate the style, confident in the knowledge that he would deliver something worthy of their unique imprimatur. He does. 

To some, the idea of 80 minutes of feature with no dialogue might seem like a daunting prospect, but the The Red Turtle’s transcendent beauty will quell the doubts of the hardiest sceptic.

FORMATSIn UK Cinemas Now
FROM Studio Canal
1hr 20m