The Red Turtle / La Tortue Rouge (2016)
Dir: Michael Dudok de Wit
If I’m completely honest, I’d find it hard to say I enjoyed this film. It has a wonderful simplicity and unquestionable moments of beauty. Yet the story, while I see it’s aiming at something almost etherial, didn’t fully work for me.
A man stranded on a desert island tries to get away, foiled by a giant red turtle, before circumstances dramatically change and motivate him to make the most of his situation.
Early on, our castaway has moments of mirage and dreaming, shown quite clearly to be such in the usual ways of depicting these in film. What follows then is hard to distinguish for what it really is, or is meant to be. I don’t want to get into specifics of the storyline for fear that what I say might be seen as a spoiler, but simply it’s all quite strange, in a way that at best could be seen as magical, or at worst just an extension of the early mirages or dreams.
It has moments that come close to charming, yet there are repeated scenes of distress and sadness that firmly anchor the tone closer to melancholy than wonderment. It never really allows itself to immerse us in the beauty or joyful moments for long enough to uplift. Every time it came close to making me feel happy, something happened that pulls me right back down into feeling annoyed with the protagonist, or saddened by events, even bewildered by how I was meant to be interpreting the main turns in the story.
Maybe I’m just missing the point, or it’s completely possible that I was expecting something very different because of the involvement of Studio Ghibli, whose work I usually love and always find joy in. This is not really a Ghibli film, it has their name to it due to Isao Takahata being a producer along with a few others, yet it stands completely distinct in visual and narrative style, with Ghibli just contributing rather than leading the production.
Visually the film has moments of beauty with some lovely use of colour. The island setting is surrounded by changing seas, trees and skies provide contrast to sand and rocks, so scenes look vibrant and certain elemetnts stand out. There’s also a brilliant absence of colour in night scenes that makes them contrast with the day, this works very well. Animals are also beautifully animated, especially the graceful movements of turtles and the inquisitiveness of perpetually onlooking crabs that were possibly my favourite thing about the film. Also to be said in its favour, though it feels like an elongated short film, it is only stretched to 80 minutes and that spans many decades in the film so it’s not overly long for the time period it covers and the amount of life it depicts.
The score was really beautiful in places, not overpowering the film but adding to some of the more beautiful and emotive moments really well. Still that wasn’t enough to make me want to watch this again in a hurry, though I have a feeling that I probably should give it another try in case it just caught unawares and I’ve missed something vital to fully getting and enjoying this film.
I understand that many other people have loved it, and I’m interested in hearing why, maybe I can be won over. If I was to sit and ponder on it for too long it may all make sense, though I feel it’s more likely to fall apart in my mind even more as I ask the big questions and pick at certain elements with any hint of logic. As a short film of 20 minutes or so I would have watched it and been left pondering, yet at the full feature run time I feel like I’ve invested too much for not enough back. I have not been left feeling satisfied or uplifted, with only fleeting moments of lasting beauty that I am grabbing on to in an attempt to take something positive away from the experience.
‘The Red Turtle’ is nominated for the ‘Best Animated Feature’ at the upcoming Oscars and while it stands out from the mainstream releases, I don’t think it stands much chance of winning.