Between 2012’s The Wind Rises, last year’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and When Marnie Was There, released several months ago, it would seem that peerless Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli have been taking a considerable number of bows before finally closing down operations (to no-one’s complaint). The Red Turtle, a co-production between Ghibli and Wild Bunch, is a perfect reminder of the studio’s mastery.
Which is not to suggest that this dialogue-free fable of an island castaway bears all the hallmarks of a standard Ghibli film. The recognisable animation style is not to be seen here, instead employing an unusual, but no less gorgeous cross-breed of CGI and hand-drawn animation, and of western and Asian art styles. The areas in which the art style truly transcends are in the landscapes and in movement. The landscapes are breath-taking throughout: lush, intensely colourful forests, ocean horizons of every shade and mood, beaches and cliffs rendered in superlative beauty.
“a beautiful and stirring work of art, channelling the sublime from elegant simplicity”
Animating movements has always been a particular strength of Ghibli, and sections here are achingly well-done. The image of a turtle, flipped on its back, flailing its flippers in vain, is made here a genuinely transcendent sight. The artfulness poured into every single motion, every effervescent detail of nature, gives the film a richness found only in the very top echelon of animation.
The plot itself is deceptively simple: a man, whose name or background we never come to know, is tossed around in a maelstrom, before washing up on a deserted tropical island. After conquering the rudiments of survival (a process ubiquitously reproduced in castaway fiction, thankfully very succinct here), he constructs a raft and attempts to leave the island behind. After sailing a few hundred metres out to sea, however, his raft is torn apart by a giant turtle. He tries repeatedly, with the same consequence every time. Without giving away too many spoilers, it is fair to say that the film pivots on his making connection with the turtle, and the story blossoms into a kind of mythical folk-tale.
A large part of the credit must go to Michaël Dudok de Wit, the Academy Award winning animator, here at the helm of his first feature-length project. The Red Turtle may have drawn its flavour from a number of sources – most notably the overseeing presence of the great Isao Takahata as artistic director – but Dudok de Wit has announced himself as a powerful creative force within the world of animation. His film is a beautiful and stirring work of art, channelling the sublime from elegant simplicity.
Image: Michaël Dudok de Wit