Studio Ghibli have provided the most beautiful animated films in history, allowing children and adults around the world to feel pure emotion. Together, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki redefined what animation could be. But Ghibli are entering a new era. Ghibli made a TV series, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, released in the US on Amazon Prime Video; Miyazaki, the studio’s most well known director, is preparing likely his final film, Boro the Caterpillar. The Red Turtle is a coproduction with Wild Bunch, Ghibli’s international distributor, and its marketing has largely de-emphasised its status has a Ghibli film; The Red Turtle comes more from a European school of animation, with little to comment on Asian culture.
The Red Turtle arose out of Miyazaki’s appreciation of de Wit’s short film Father and Daughter (2000), an emotional, watercolour piece similarly deploying no dialogue in favour of visual storytelling. Though The Red Turtle might seem at odds with Ghibli’s other works, Ghibli has always experimented between different animation and directorial styles and ways of telling narrative. In their recent short Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo (2012), Ghibli even worked in live action, combined with visual effects.
The Red Turtle’s animation seeks a hand drawn yet realistic quality in movement, avoiding the rotoscoping of Waking Life (2001) or overt stylisation. de Wit moves between different textures and landscapes, between water, the jungle and beach, each with their own luscious colour schemes of blues, oranges and greens that pulse out. de Wit pays close attention to the horizon line, creating geometry within the frame. At times, animation is almost watercolour; with its simple narrative, it wouldn’t be out of place within a storybook.
Though largely nonverbal, the film is far from silent, beautifully scored by Laurent Perez Del Mar and with an immersive soundscape. In the opening, the film drowns the viewer in the rage and fury of the ocean. We feel the patter of rain and the strength of the wind, the cacophony of nature assaulting us viscerally. Neither is the film dialogue free, as our protagonist yells out in frustration. If any film deserves to be seen with surround sound, this is the film.
The Red Turtle feels as though it derives from the oral tradition, a simple fable of symbolism and metaphor related through the ages. The film evokes this storytelling form: our protagonists draw stories of their ancestors within the sand, as though it were a cavepainting. Our characters are nameless empty vessels for us to read onto, without distinguishing characteristics or backstories. Like a symphony, it becomes a dance between two partners, an operatic piece. As we see the bond between man, woman and child, and the rituals of childhood, teenagehood and adulthood, we impart life lessons for our own children to draw upon. Often, it feels like a dream. Ghibli, throughout Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), build fantasy dream worlds onscreen, escaping into mythical lands and magical creatures. But Ghibli imparts lessons too, confronting us to the realities of grief and loss in Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Spirited Away (2001). The Red Turtle uses magical realism: we swim through the ocean, surviving falls and moving through impossible chasms. The waves of the ocean stand stationary, in absence of gravity. A turtle floats upon air. de Wit frames nighttime scenes in monochrome, in absence of light, seeing the immensity of stars, adopting a dreamlike quality as we see a mirage of a band playing upon the beach.
The archetype of a castaway upon a desert island might seem like a trope. But de Wit expands what could be a plot device into an entire narrative, as our protagonist must overcome adversity and struggle to survive against nature. We see the processes of cutting down trees and building a raft, struggling to find momentum as the raft falls apart. In another recent film, All is Lost (2013), Robert Redford’s unnamed protagonist must also struggle to survive against the immensity of the ocean, deploying very little dialogue. de Wit shows the immensity of nature, avoiding a subjectively human perspective, largely avoiding close-ups in favour of wide vistas of nature, our protagonists minimised within the largeness of the frame.
The Red Turtle reminds us of a world beyond our own, with its own cycles. We see the hierarchy as each species becomes food for another, a successive chain: flies and insects eat flesh; crabs become food; seagulls eat what they can get. Our human protagonists scavenge for food, skinning a seal for its meat before quickly throwing up, or eating fish. Later, we see the devastation of nature, the beach’s ecosystem is torn apart through human impact both within and beyond our control. In its conclusion, the film reminds us of our own place within this circle of life: like the red turtle, we become a hulking, deceased mass washed up upon the beach. Life passes by in minutes, as the film’s protagonist ages and dies, memorialised by his wife. We might feel outside the ecosystem of nature and the hierarchy of the animal kingdom, but we cannot escape it.
The Red Turtle goes beyond explicit narrative in favour of something minimalistic and concise, yet never stops being meaningful. Whilst short form animation like Piper (2016) often makes use of lack of dialogue, sustaining a narrative for a feature length is a different situation. Yet throughout its 80-minute runtime, The Red Turtle keeps the viewer’s engagement as a beautiful piece of animation and cinema.