We've now reached a point in the collective understanding of animation that I don't need to to remind you that animation is a legitimate art form outside of children’s entertainment, that great artistry extends from small, independent films to major studio animation projects, and that animation is as legitimately a medium for adults as it is for kids. The stigma that used to plague the medium seems to have finally started to shift, so much so that an event like ‘The Red Turtle’, a collaboration between the legendary Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator Michaël Dukok de Wit can garner as much anticipation as a new film from Malick or Scorcese. Even without taking into account the intriguing prospect of the first non-Japanese film produced by Ghibli, the actual film itself is enough to have any animation fanatic sit up with interest.
The film, entirely devoid of dialogue, follows a man shipwrecked on a deserted island. Using the resources he finds, he builds a raft to sail to safety, but every time he attempts to leave, his raft is demolished by an enormous red turtle. After many attempts, and in a fit of fury, the man attacks the turtle on shore, but riddled with guilt over this act of violence, the man is faced by the unexpected and life-changing consequences of his actions.
Structured and executed with the simplicity of a fable, de Wit’s remarkable film shares only cursory DNA to Ghibli, who act here as producers rather than direct artists. The key artistic connection comes from director Isao Takahata as artistic producer, but it’s clear that the singular artistic force in ‘The Red Turtle’ is de Wit himself. Without dialogue to drive the narrative, the film relies upon its careful and considered visual storytelling, both beautifully simple and consistently daring. The film moves at a meticulous pace, capturing the existential crisis of this man as comprehends his situation and comes to grips with the island and its flora and fauna. The animation style falls between a stark reality and abstract dream, the animation lines drawn with sharp clarity. Because it has such a meticulous rhythm, it lulls you into an almost dream-like state in a way few animated films seem capable of anymore. This isn’t a film for children, because though it has many moments of gentle comedy, there’s far more philosophical and psychological subtext to this film that will test their patience and go over their heads.
Without dialogue to drive the narrative, the film relies upon its careful and considered visual storytelling, both beautifully simple and consistently daring.
When the film takes a significant narrative turn halfway through, it moves from a kind of dreamy reality to a piece of fantasy or fairytale, but it does so without any need to explain itself or without any effort. Somehow, miraculously, it all falls into place, and while the film makes no effort to unpack its second half in any literal sense, it trusts its audience to go along with it and get swept up in it. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe ‘The Red Turtle’ - it’s a film that sweeps you off your feet and carries you gently along the current as you bob on the surface, knowing there’s enormous depth underneath but that turning and looking isn’t always important. It’s an enormously accomplished, breathtaking piece of filmmaking, and the remarkable talent Michaël Dukok de Wit and his team demonstrate in every frame make it clear why he caught the Ghibli’s attention. On one hand, the film represents a possible shift in focus for what many consider the greatest animation studio in the world as it starts a new chapter. On the other, ‘The Red Turtle’ is an announcement of an important new voice in animation, and if the significant critical success of this film is any indication, one we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the years to come.