Cinematic Releases: Breaking Out of Your Shell - The Red Turtle (2017)

Studio Ghibli is known for their gorgeous and emotional films and they take a bit of a detour into art-house territory with The Red Turtle. It’s a joint venture between Studio Ghibli and a French company known as Wild Bunch with Dutch-British animator Michaël Dudok de Wit taking the helm as director. Hayao Miyazaki saw an earlier animated short film that Michaël made called Father and Daughter and requested to work with him. 

The Red Turtle has a deceptively simple story: a man gets shipwrecked on a deserted island and has to survive. He is visited by a red turtle periodically that thwarts his escape attempts for some unknown reason. After this point, the narrative takes a decidedly surreal trajectory that plays out like a fable of sorts. The pacing is languid and dreamlike and though it continually marches forward, it does take side-steps into the fantastical from time to time. There is zero dialogue in this film, though its absence is not felt due to the sumptuous visuals and music. Emotion is the language being spoken in this film and it is felt in every scene intensely. Loneliness is hard to convey without becoming monotonous but we find ourselves invested in the plight of this poor marooned fellow even though he does not utter one word. He does, however, make sounds and his screams of despair (and joy) are surprising when they do occur.

The animation is lovely and conjures both feelings of awe and sadness especially in the first act of the film. It’s done in the more “traditional” style with painterly touches though it does have a tiny bit of a cell-shaded look. Character designs are minimalist but effective as they do an excellent job of emoting through their physical gestures and facial expressions. I found the island itself to be just as important a character as the protagonist—a neutral entity that doles out happiness and destruction in equal measure. The environment has a lot of to offer visually as they went to great lengths to depict all of the expansive beaches and lush foliage that the nameless man encounters. There are also several adorable tiny crabs that follow him around while he does his daily “chores” that inject a little bit of levity into the somber atmosphere.
Laurent Perez del Mar’s musical compositions are beautiful and in what is essentially a silent film, carry much of the story. The score is haunting and ebbs and flows perfectly with what is going with the characters. It’s orchestral and violin-heavy though it occasionally fades into the background to let the natural sounds of the water crashing or the chirps of birds shine through. I have yet to see a Studio Ghibli film that didn’t have music that moved me and this is no exception.

Got any turtle nibbles? I'm hungry as hell!

Ultimately, The Red Turtle is a tale about coming to terms with one’s path in life and making the best of terrible setbacks. You can either spend all of your time lamenting your situation and trying to fight it, or you can deal with the hand that was dealt to you by rebuilding your reality and changing your perspective. It might even help to look at it from the view of a turtle, slowly plodding along to their destination, with their home literally on their back. Wherever it is you choose to stop, make that the best place you can be.

-Michelle Kisner