If you have any doubts left that animated films can be amongst our most serious and profound artistic statements (you shouldn’t), this film should dispel them with the easeful grace of a turtle’s fin gliding through water. It doesn’t shout about how profound it’s being: quite literally, there’s no onscreen dialogue (beyond the odd ‘hey!’). It doesn’t beat you around the head with capital-S ‘Symbolism’, either. But in a hushed way, with only a whisper of pretension, its simple tale of a man washed up on an island who first attacks and then befriends a giant red turtle manages to convey all aspects of life from birth to romance to parenthood and death – and then back again to a kind of rebirth. All in just 80 minutes.
It’s a Studio Ghibli co-production, which might account for its radical simplicity -unshouted messages of environmental concern are at the heart of My Neighbour Totoro and many other of the great studio’s works. And indeed here too, exceptionally well-drawn backdrops of the natural world make an unshowy argument for the environment’s inherent beauty and the importance of our custodial duty in preserving it. Stormy seas and crystal blue waters, expanses of sand and towering palm trees, birds flying and turtles soaring – these are all exquisitely detailed and painstakingly coloured, as we’ve come to expect and now unfortunately take for granted with Studio Ghibli.
Yet The Red Turtle departs in many ways from the studio’s oeuvre, co-produced as it is with several other studios including France’s Wild Bunch and Belgium’s Belvision, whilst directed by an outsider: the Dutch-born, London-based Michaël Dudok de Wit. This seems to me a fittingly global setup, for international cooperation is the only way in which we can truly act to preserve the environment. But the difference is most apparent in the human figures: Studio Ghibli’s characters have always been clearly expressed through their eyes, the so-called windows to the soul. Here, the eyes take the form of just single black beads, which as many reviewers have pointed out owes a greater debt to Hergé’s Tintin comics than anime, and which means that we learn more about the character’s personalities from their overt body movements and physical interaction with surroundings. As such, the mise-en-scène is generally more distant, the camera tending to point down at the living figures from far above when they’re on land and far below when they’re in the sea, giving them space to move around and convey their emotions to us, cleverly, without the need for close-ups.
This distancing effect also powerfully conveys the film’s key message: that the natural world is far bigger than all of us tiny human beings who inhabit it, and surely it will carry on long after we’re gone. Our hero is dwarfed in almost every shot by sand dunes, enormous trees and rock structures, and in the film’s most dramatic moment a frightening tsunami. His vulnerability recalls last year’s The Revenant, where Leonardo DiCaprio was similarly both oppressed and enchanted by his surroundings, but of course it also recalls all battles with nature that have been a consistent fascination in our narrative fictions from The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe to Life of Pi. I’ve long believed that the stories we tell mirror the deepest fears in our collective subconscious, and the fear that the world we inhabit could one day swallow us all up and leave no trace of our existence is a common one, no doubt because it’s not just very likely to happen at some point but practically a certainty. As I’m sure I don’t need to stress, rising sea levels due to our incessant and stupidly short-sighted polluting makes our continued existence on this gorgeous planet diminishingly likely. In its final shot, The Red Turtle breathes a sigh of dismay at this future extinguishment, whilst showing us how nature will carry on regardless, like a newborn turtle making its first dangerous journey from sandy shore to the sea.
As you may have gathered, if you have children, this might not be the animated film to share with them at a young age. Or maybe it is – we do all need to understand, from a very young age, how the environment is so much more important than mankind’s ego-driven pursuit of profit, or else we run the Trumpian risk of speeding up our eventual demise. And this film is positive at heart: it believes that if we stop, look and listen to the natural world, rather than simply exploiting it, we can not only extend but, perhaps more importantly, also greatly enrich our species’ lifetime.
So do go to see The Red Turtle, please, and take as many people with you as possible: you will be enchanted by almost every one of its 80 minutes, I guarantee. You could just switch off and enjoy the extravagant visuals if you prefer – but I say choose to ignore the underlying message, and dismiss it as hippie nonsense, at all of our peril.
I usually post a trailer at this point, but the one for this film gives away vital plot elements that I was careful to conceal in my review – and, what’s worse, it also contains a majority of the film’s most impressive shots. A common gripe with trailers, but particularly grievous in this instance. Avoid, and head straight to the cinema.