At the moment, Studio Ghibli may be the nearest thing to an ‘auteur-studio’, one whose style (as opposed to Marvel’s subject matter) is immediately identifiable. That applies even with The Red Turtle, a co-production with numerous funders, primarily from France and Belgium. It’s the first feature from writer-director Michaël Dudok de Wit (among whose short films is the Oscar-winning Father and Daughter (2001). It was seeing that film that made Ghibli’s Isao Takahata seek out de Wit to work with the studio.
It certainly has something of a Ghibli texture, though it is not Manga-ish. The animation is clean and beautiful and the backgrounds – gently washed skies, rippling forest canopies – are careful settings for the foreground action. At the same time, the protagonists’ Julian Opie features mark them as not Japanese. The story – told entirely visually, with no dialogue – has symbolic new-age tinges, with a strong environmental bent, but is ambiguous enough to avoid one-dimensional preachiness. Briefly, the story is…
Caught in a storm, a young man lands on a remote island beach. He tries to escape but some unrevealed force repeatedly destroys the rafts he builds. After several attempts he is thrown into the sea, and finds the culprit is a giant red turtle. Some time later, the turtle comes onto the beach and the man attacks it with a stick and angrily turns it onto its back. Eventually it dies and turns into an attractive woman. The man and the woman live together and have a son. After various adventures, the son decides to leave and he is accompanied by three turtles. The man and woman grow old together. The man dies and, after a period of grieving, the woman turns back into a turtle and returns to the sea.
The Robinson Crusoe-esque story has enough incident – threats and and comedy – to keep us involved, and it’s lovely to look at. But while the environmental, cycle-of-life angle is clear enough (the son’s life sometimes echoes the father’s), the specifics of the symbolism are not straightforward. It’s not too wimpily wide-eyed about beautiful Mother Nature and certainly doesn’t present it/(her?) as something particularly kindly disposed towards humanity, for all the mysterious contact between the animals and the people. The turtles seem like inscrutable elders, keeping a distant, but vaguely benevolent eye on things though not always intervening to help. There are also some nice comic touches from a group of curious crabs, though one suffers a nasty fate, as a reminder of nature’s cruelty. Apart from that, one fears for a child whose explanation of the birds and the bees revolves around their turtle-mother being beaten to death.
This isn’t quite a normal Ghibli film though devotees might take it as a ‘Europeanised’ outlier to the canon. I’m not sure whether it’s quite a ‘family’ film though teenaged Ghibli-ites might enjoy it (the LFF has put it into the ‘Journey’, rather than ‘Family’ strand). In some ways it reminded me of René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet. Clearly, The Red Turtle will trade on the Ghibli name, and find some success (it premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard). It won’t be counted among the studio’s masterpieces, but it’s enjoyable enough.
Here’s the (far too rapidly edited) trailer
Writer/director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Wed 05/10 (NFT1); Thurs 06/10 (Odeon Leicester Square).
Buy tickets here