The Red Turtle

A cinematic masterpiece.

Despite their experience distributing Studio Ghibli productions, The Red Turtle was a gamble for StudioCanal. It paid off though and it was a huge success during its theatrical run, landing somewhere in the middle of the Ghibli catalogue near The Wind Rises in terms of takings, even while it was up against the wonderful My Life As A Courgette (reviewed here) during its initial release. I know it’s rather vulgar to compare great films against one another and, on the contrary, discerning animation film fans have been getting spoiled for years now. That My Life As A Courgette merely exists is cause for celebration, not competition. What makes The Red Turtle special is what it hasn’t got; such as a discernable plot, dialogue or ostentatious characters and so writing a review is difficult, because as soon as you consider the film as several parts, they become disparate and unremarkable. That would be a shame because it’s a special film, one of the finest, animated or not.

The story begins during a storm out at sea. A man clings to driftwood, flotsam from a shipwreck. He finds himself deposited, alone, on a small island. Time passes; how much is difficult to say, but the man develops a routine and three times we see him build a raft, each one bigger than the last. Three times he takes it out into the shallows, and three times his craft will be wrecked by an unseen assailant, forcing him to return to the island. On the third occasion, he sees the likely culprit; a large turtle with a distinctive red shell. He is angry at the creature for denying him an escape, but there is a sense that it has saved him. A sense that his destiny is on that island.

You think you’ve seen this film already, don’t you? There’s Cast Away with Tom Hanks for a start, and this doesn’t have Tom Hanks. Told you it was a tough sell. All I can say is that what follows the man’s meeting with the turtle is nothing like what you may assume, but to reveal more would be to deny you the joy of discovering a gentle story to which we can all relate; one that contemplates what it means to be human. And the consummate production is so exquisite you’ll be lost in its magic within the first minutes anyway.

The film is an international production between Germany’s Wild Bunch studio and Japan’s Studio Ghibli, who wanted to work with Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit after seeing Father and Daughter. It’s impossible to say whose influence is strongest; Michael and Pascale Ferran’s writing is complemented by Laurent Perez del Mar’s gorgeous score and animation that has more in common with the peaceful landscapes of Japanese live action than perhaps it does with Studio Ghibli’s more famous pieces. It is a work of precise detail, and even in wide-open stillness, there is movement, such as you would find in the mise-en-scène of Akira Kurosawa. Words like “sublime” and “profound” are overused but are appropriate for the moment during a swim with two turtles. The symmetry of the image is breathtaking.

Treating dialogue like an unnecessary gimmick, the masterful narrative tells the story with clarity and introduces urgency without betraying the theme. There is room for humour and melancholy both, and your heart will threaten to break. A motley band of industrious crabs come close to being Disney-like sidekicks to the lonely Robinson Crusoe figure, and yet never so obvious as to be intrusive.

If The Red Turtle has to have a message, it isn’t a political or satirical one, nor is it a genre piece. It is refreshing to find something so timeless, human and visually immaculate, the thing cinema does best. It seems fitting that The Red Turtle is released just as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans reaches its 90th anniversary. It would seem odd to link them, but F.W. Murnau’s masterwork, the pinnacle of the silent era, has a hypnotic symphonic quality that has since been rarely matched. Wong Kar-wai’s graceful In The Mood For Love did so and now we find The Red Turtle to have the same ethereal poetic beauty.

As so often happens with animation, the Blu-ray is a reference quality transfer. The 1.85 ratio fills the screen with rich colour. Contrasts of the environment shift beautifully according to the time of day, or the state of the weather. Wide-open shots have a lovely grain, while there is a tactile sharpness to the details.

In such a visually striking production, it’s easy to give the soundtrack short shrift, which would be criminal in this case. Weather is a constant and the opening storm envelops you in the crashing waves. The island itself is peaceful but never quiet and the subtle nuances of the sound design are masterful. Dialogue is centred and clear, such as it is! In this film, voices refer to occasional wildlife, but the man is not mute either. He never gets so talky we need sub-titles, but he does emit an odd “hey”, a shout or a laugh.

A considerable portion of the film’s power is in French composer Laurent Perez del Mar’s score. His achingly beautiful music is the glue that pulls everything else together.

Secrets of The Red Turtle (17m)  There is only one extra feature, but it’s excellent. Michaël Dudok de Wit shows the simple pencil sketches from which The Red Turtle is built. It’s amusing to hear him speak modestly of elements that are “difficult”, considering the end result is quite brilliant. Anyone with an interest in drawing will lap this up.

Meanwhile, you can find an interview by The Digital Fix with Michaël Dudok de Wit here.

Jon Meakin

Updated: Oct 01, 2017

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