The first Studio Ghibli film to be produced outside of the legendary Toho studios, Michael Dudok De Wit’s The Red Turtle is one of the more disappointing releases to come from Ghibli in recent years that feels more like an overstretched short film than a fully realised feature.
The premise is simple: an unnamed man, castaway on a desert island, encounters a red turtle, who thwarts his attempts to escape the island. There isn’t any dialogue, but you’d hesitate to call it a silent film. Honing in on man’s relationship to nature through the isolated environment of the island, the film employs texture and exquisite sound design to highlight the expressionistic and immersive palette. The animation is decidedly minimalist, and brings to mind the Tintin cartoons, but this gives it a more expansive feeling on the whole. The colours are what really do the work in this sense, conjuring both fluidity and emotion in a way that’s often very effective.
It’s a shame, then, that these effective moments don’t come often enough. On the whole, it feels a little too long (even at a short 80-minute runtime) and undercooked at the same time. The best Studio Ghibli films have always been able to conjure up strong, often uncomfortably intense emotions through an interplay of perfectly tuned moments. They give the illusion of simplicity but in fact conceal something much deeper and complex. We can see these same cogs a work here – the futility of the film’s central character as a proxy to mankind as a whole is recognisable, but it’s unable to render this theme into a conclusion that’s as fulfilling as it wants to be.
After the first fifteen minutes, it’s made pretty certain what The Red Turtle is – a musing on man’s submission to nature, in a way that is affirmative rather than defeatist. With this sort of theme, De Wit takes it past its limit for me. The languid attitude of the film is, I think, meant to absorb the audience through the poignancy of its images. But this feels a little overstretched when the thematic points are expressed and the resulting delivery is unoriginal. It might be a parable, but it’s one where the message of man and nature is left oversaid by the time the credits roll.
It might seem harsh to judge the film against its studio peers – after all, there’s not been many studios in the last thirty years that have been able to top Ghibli’s reputation for consistent excellence. The problem here is that De Wit is consciously trying to evoke the Ghibli brand of entertainment by riffing on its style. What The Red Turtle makes up for in its imagery, it loses in this most fundamental department. In a Ghibli film, where style is so intimately connected to substance, De Wit struggles to unite the two.
The Red Turtle is now in cinemas across the UK. Image source: Asianstyle.cz