SFF 2016 Review: The Red Turtle

Sydney Film Festival: The Red Turtle

Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) posterDirect from winning the Un Certain Regard Special Prize at Cannes, Studio Ghibli’s co-produced film is masterclass in visual storytelling.

During the screening of THE RED TURTLE, several groups of families came in late, as is the case with every cinema. Yet animator and short film director Michael Dudok de Wit’s feature debut is structured in such a way that the purely visual language can be understood at any drop-in point. One wouldn’t expect less from anything that the legendary Studio Ghibli touches, although this is distinct from anything they have been involved with before.

With When Marnie Was There, Ghibli concluded an era of classic story-first animation. THE RED TURTLE, a co-production with Wild Bunch, is definitely the work of a different voice, but with some Ghibli charm in its DNA. Without using any dialogue, it tells the story of a man who washes ashore on an isolated island, but his repeated attempts to escape are stymied by an unseen force. The story unfolds in a gentle and dreamlike fashion, complete with whimsical moments, and helpful wandering crabs that are reminiscent of the Susuwatari (“soot sprites”) that populated My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away.

What is most striking about THE RED TURTLE is how simple every aspect of the film is. It’s like a storybook, featuring character designs that resemble children’s author Tohby Riddle’s, with no more detail than dots for eyes. The narrative follows a very unencumbered style of animation, the lush tropical forest a seemingly unending collection of green lines, and the rest of the island is a wonderland punctuated by a relaxing body of water. As the man’s life unfolds on the island, he and some new companions deal with at least one major drama, but the straightforward tale is unburdened with overwrought speeches or heavy-handed morality. The absence of dialogue, beyond the occasional “Hey!”, allows audiences to soak up the imagery and let the gentle musings on an uncomplicated existence sink in.

Oftentimes abstract and lyrical, de Wit has ensured that the Studio Ghibli legacy will continue outside of Japan and into a new generation of filmmakers. His previous short films, including one drawn entirely with tea, indicated innovation, but his first feature shows that he is capable of the type of storytelling that has captivated animation fans around the world for decades. THE RED TURTLE is beautiful and lyrical journey through life – without even saying a word.

2016 | France, Belgium | DIR: Michael Dudok de Wit | WRITERS: Michael Dudok de Wit, Pascale Ferran | DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission Films (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes | RATING: ★★★★½ (9/10)