The Red Turtle has recently done the rounds of the film festival circuit, including our own New Zealand International Film Festival. A collaboration between Studio Ghibli and Oscar-winning Dutch born writer-director Michael Dudok de Wit (Father and Daughter) makes for an interesting fit. Dudok de Wit has applied his hand solely to short films to date, so it must have been an interesting turn of events that convinced him to work on a feature film with an animation studio from half a world away in distance and style. It took a decade to make, but make it they did, and the result is a genuine treat.
Entirely dialogue free, the film tells the simple story of a man (we never know his name) castaway on a deserted tropical island. His attempts to escape the island by a raft made of bamboo are repeatedly thwarted by the titular red turtle. Consequent to seeking his revenge upon the turtle, the film uncannily unfolds into a fantastical fable that explores themes of companionship, family, grief and man’s bond with nature … ultimately to its poignant and moving end.
The film’s art style is stunning and mimics the purity of its narrative, with clean lines and hyper-simplistic characters with simple dots for eyes, set against a painterly backdrop of the sea, sky, and island. There is a palpable splicing of Japanese and European art styles, almost as if Tintin walked onto the set of Ponyo.
A minimalist pace and lack of dialogue allows space to ponder what is presented before your senses rather than having to play catchup on any lengthy expositions. This is a refreshing approach and perhaps necessary of a film that implores us to look at nature through a simple lens. However, it is the provocative ambiguity that remains the film’s most attractive feature, and as such I was left basking in its tantalisingly elusive meaning for days after viewing — it’s almost as if the film is daring you to draw your own conclusion rather than present one for you.
Despite the Studio Ghibli pedigree, the slow pace means that audience patience, rather than subject matter, might make the film inaccessible to younger children. Although, I think perseverance in this instance would have its rewards, as this is a masterclass in sensory story telling. Look out for this film in the new year … it is definitely worth the wait.
Star rating: 4.5 stars.