Studio Ghibli of Totoro fame presents their first ever film collaboration, and boy is it a sight to behold. The Red Turtle, or La Tort Rouge, contains absolutely no dialogue, yet manages to dazzle and impress with its gorgeous animation over the course of its 80 minute run.
London-based Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit begins the film with with a bang, placing the unnamed protagonist struggling for his life in a choppy sea, giant waves thrashing him about with almost no hope of survival. Luckily, he’s still alive in the morning, ending up washed up on a deserted island.
The island is picturesque, but consists of nothing but a lush, sprawling bamboo forest, a cliff and a beach (inhabited by some endearing crabs). Naturally, our protagonist wants out, and builds rafts out of bamboo in an attempt to escape the island. Every time he does so though, he’s thwarted by a giant red turtle, who breaks the raft, turning the escape into a Sisyphus task. Said red turtle ends up transforming into a beautiful red haired woman, and the pair decide to live out the rest of their life on the island, including bearing a red haired child with an uncanny knack for swimming.
In all honesty, not much happens during the film. For much of the first half, we spend time with the man just trying and failing to get off the island. But one can’t help but feel connected to this everyman as he struggles and faces the natural world head on, from almost ending up trapped in a water hole, to simply the idea of hope and carrying on. This is of course helped by the fact that the animation is mindblowingly beautiful. Take for instance the water in the opening storm scene, which rolls and crashes, though always remains smoothly animated, almost as if it’s a living creature, reminiscent of the storm in Ghibli’s Ponyo On A Cliff By The Sea.
In the second half of the film, years pass and the film truly finds its feet after the initial buildup. The couple’s son matures and goes through experiences similar to his father, including falling into the same water hole, and eventually deciding to leave the island, something his father could never do. The highlight of the entire film comes in the form of a tsunami that hits the island with full force, decimating everything on it. The boy by this time has taking on the role as the man of the family, rescuing his father after he is washed out to sea. For all its silence, the film speaks volumes about the cycle of life (helped by the hypnotic and always appropriate score by composer Laurent Perez Del Mar), and really connected with me on its concerns with age, family, survival and hope.
Overall, The Red Turtle is a beast of a film that feels like an extended segment from Disney’s Fantasia. It’s not your standard Ghibli fare, almost certainly aimed at a more mature audience by virtue of the fact that it has a tendency to move very slowly. But whether you’re a Ghibli diehard or new to animation as a whole, The Red Turtle will charm and mesmerise you with its deceptively simple story and technically brilliant animation. Walking out of the cinema, I felt like I just lived through a lifetime, and what a beautifully depicted life that was.
The Red Turtle plays at various venues on 5 and 6 October. Tickets available here