Tonight I finally caught up with The Red Turtle, the only animated film from the 2016 Oscar nominees that I had yet to see. A French/Belgian co-production with Japanese Studio Ghibli, directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, this wordless, deceptively simple, splendidly animated fable gets under the skin in haunting, profound ways. For some it will be too slow, subtle and low key, but frankly I feel sorry for anyone who takes that view.
The plot concerns a man shipwrecked on a desert island. He makes repeated escape attempts, but is constantly thwarted by the presence of a huge red turtle that smashes up his bamboo rafts every time he tries to set sail. The man is furious with this turtle, but after he vengefully turns it over on the shore, he experiences a strange, quasi-Damascus road moment of remorse at what he has done to this magnificent creature. This in turn apparently brings about a miracle which… No, it’s too good to say anymore.
When it comes to describing the animation, phrases such as “stunningly drawn” and “achingly beautiful” feel completely redundant. Images that will stay with you forever include blue-grey seas against charcoal skies, magical dreams of flight and a devastating tsunami. The island itself is a colourful kaleidoscope of bamboo trees, sheer rock formations and teeming wildlife (including some comic-relief scuttling crabs). Actually with so much sheer beauty to take in, from monochromatic night scenes to opulent, sun-bathed days, the visual feast proves overwhelmingly emotional.
Breathtakingly poignant, eloquent and moving, The Red Turtle is about the mysteries of nature and of human life itself, effortlessly encompassing themes of birth, life, death and rebirth into its minimal but resonant narrative. There are also fascinating spiritual interpretations of just what the Red Turtle represents. For example, one could read this as a fable about God thwarting man’s overreaching ambition, for his own good, so he can enjoy something better, even though he can’t yet see it. Or the film could be read without any religious angle, as simply a moral tale with the premise that one should make the most of one’s situation, regardless of how catastrophic it may appear at first glance. However in the end, regardless of what interpretation is taken, the effect is spellbinding, magical and transcendent, especially when accompanied by Laurent Perez de Mar’s magnificent music score.
In a cinematic landscape clogged up with soulless, bloated Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean sequels – films without a shred of artistic merit that exist purely to part the gullible from their cash – The Red Turtle comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. It is a wonderful breath of fresh air, a shining gem of a film, and a true work of art. In fact, I have to confess it had such a profound effect on me that I had to take pause afterwards, wiping the tears from my eyes, before driving home. I know it’s been out for a while, but do try to track it down in the cinema. You will not regret it.