The Red Turtle
The grandiose tales and stunning fantastical worlds of Studio Ghibli’s animations never fail to captivate viewers, yet it is often their simplest stories that take you most by surprise. From My Neighbour Totoro (1988), to Only Yesterday (1991), to When Marnie Was There (2014), these pared down stories add a wonderful layer of emotional realism while still keeping the usual Ghibli magic intact. With their latest film, The Red Turtle (2016), that minimalism is even more significant. A wordless animation about a man shipwrecked on an island and his hellish struggle to leave, this is as beautifully entrancing as any other Ghibli feature, but also surprisingly different.
Indeed, regular Ghibli viewers might be a little thrown when they first begin to watch this. Gone is the usual Ghibli anime, basic line drawings taking its place and making the starkness even more striking. The reason behind the aesthetic difference is that The Red Turtle is in fact Ghibli’s first ever co-production, with the film made in France and directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. And yet as we are more deeply drawn into the magnificent, silent world of The Red Turtle, we soon see that the heart of Ghibli is still there, the collaboration behind this only strengthening their usual themes, while the change in animation itself allows de Wit to focus on vast blocks of gorgeous, never-ending colour to really hit home just how desperately stranded this nameless man is. Beautifully gloomy, almost star strewn dream sequences also bring a touch of magic realism to de Wit’s film at times – an aspect that becomes more apparent as the story unravels.
This fantastical aspect is never anything other than convincing when it does emerge alongside the appearance of the titular creature though. It is then that The Red Turtle’s simple narrative slowly morphs into something else entirely, gradually revealing itself to be a powerful meditation on life, death, and all the bits in between. While that might seem too complex an idea for an animation, especially one aimed at a younger audience, de Wit’s execution is perfect, particularly his decision to keep this wordless. Rather than hinder our understanding, it is the lack of dialogue together with the film's sublime score that keeps us riveted, creating an almost hypnotic pace which allows the images and story to wash over us and help us concentrate on the bigger things at work here.
That this is so gripping only makes The Red Turtle all the more emotionally effective, the film building like the crest of a wave until it comes crashing towards a beautiful, genuinely heart wrenching conclusion. A joy to watch in spite of the devastating end, de Wit and Ghibli have perfectly combined forces here to create something that is both truly magical and also a poignant and realistic reflection on life itself. And who would have thought a silent animation about a sea creature could do that?