May 1, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: THE RED TURTLE

Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit. (2016, 81 min).

Studio Ghibli fans should take note that although it is co-produced by the legendary anime studio (highly touted in ads and on the cover), The Red Turtle is primarily a French-Belgian production, the first full-length feature by director Michael Dudok de Wit. Those same fans shouldn't let that dissuade them either, because even though this film is stylistically different, it's as aesthetically beautiful as Hayao Miyazaki's best work.

As for the slight story...there's a man stranded on a deserted island. Since there's an abundance of food and water, survival isn't much of a struggle. However, his several escape attempts are thwarted by a giant sea turtle that keeps destroying his makeshift rafts. When the turtle crawls from the sea onto the beach, the man violently attacks it, then turns it onto its back, rendering it helpless. Without going into story-spoiling specifics, this single act changes the man's life in more ways than one, most significantly, the family he eventually has while on the island.

None of the characters have names or distinctive personalities, nor do we learn anything about them other than what we see. Even their facial features are drawn in a minimalist style. And aside from the occasional call of "Hey!", there's absolutely no dialogue. Yet The Red Turtle still manages to be emotionally stirring. From a narrative standpoint, the first half of the film - when the man is alone, save for some amusing white crabs who follow him around - is the strongest, effectively conveying his sense of isolation and desperation, not unlike Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away.

Some folks suck at Hide & Seek.
The second half isn't quite as compelling, though still stirring and poignant. But the story isn't really the driving force behind The Red Turtle. This is a brilliantly animated film, and while there are fantasy elements, the imagery is more fluid and realistically drawn than what you see in traditional anime. That, coupled with a haunting music score, renders the whole thing more like a piece of visual poetry. Or maybe it's simply been so long since I've seen a brand new traditionally-animated film that I was enraptured by its artistry.

The Red Turtle was nominated for Best Animated Feature this year. While I believe the best movie won (Zootopia), this is an equally impressive technical achievement. Best of all, it's appeal isn't limited to children. Its simple-yet-engrossing story, coupled with stunning hand-drawn animation, make the film a terrific change of pace from the usual stuff passing itself off as family fare. This one's definitely worth repeated viewings.

FEATURETTES: "The Birth of The Red Turtle"; "The Secrets of The Red Turtle"
AFI FEST Q&A - The director discusses making the film to a festival audience.


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