Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, February 17, 2017

OSCARS 2017: The Red Turtle (2016)

When Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata announced their retirement a few years back, it seemed to have an immediate effect on Studio Ghibli. The Japanese animation giant didn't announce their closure but it appears the studio has slowed down in recent years. One of the few films to emerge from the house that Totoro built recently is “The Red Turtle.” Primarily a French/Belgium co-production, the Japanese studio helped out in making the movie because Miyazaki was a fan of director Michael Dudok de Wit's short films. Now this visually scrumptious film has ridden a wave of positive reviews all the way to the Academy Awards, where it's one of two arty foreign films to get nominated for Best Animated Feature.

“The Red Turtle” is a story told without any dialogue, aside from occasional, barely audible shouts of “yeah” or “hey.” It begins with a man adrift in the ocean, tossed by a storm. He arrives on a desert island, covered with a lush bamboo forest. He builds several rafts, attempting to float home. Each time, the raft sinks, tore apart by some animal under the waves. Eventually, the man discovers a culprit: A large, red turtle. Enraged, he kills the turtle. In time, the deceased, aquatic reptile changes into a beautiful woman. Together, the two start a life together, making the island their home. 

I'll be up-front and admit that I didn't totally get “The Red Turtle.” Having said that, this movie is really, really pretty. The animation is simply gorgeous. The opening shot of cascading waves recall traditional Japanese wood cuttings. The simplistic character designs bring traditional Belgium comics to mind. Several shots are even done in a wide, flat angle, recalling the panels of a comic stripe. Meanwhile, the island setting is brought to life with incredible detail, making the location seem like a real place that is vibrant and alive. The scenes under the water have a brilliant blue color, appearing serene. When the turtle appears, it has a hyper-realistic look that deliberately contrasts against the minimalist people. Each frame is a work of art, a gorgeously illustrated painting brought that leaps off the screen.

“The Red Turtle” feels like an allegory of some sort. There's a circular aspect to the story. People arrive at and leave the island, just to arrive again, bringing the rhythm of a fable to mind. The film is rift with symbols, like the rain that seemingly gives life. Rafts, bottles, and turtle shells have some sort of deeper meaning, representing the different characters. The way the man goes from hating the turtle to loving it is significant, I'm sure. Dream sequences frequently occur over “The Red Turtle's” brief run time. The dead turtle floating into the air or a wave frozen above the island are but two surreal images that grace the movie. Together, these attribute create a slightly inscrutable film that plays out like a piece of music, floating from point to point in an elegant if somewhat obscure fashion.

“The Red Turtle” could be considered a survival story. After all, it concerns a man washing up on an island and doing what he can to live. Yet the film is not so much concerned with the details of surviving on a desert island. Honestly, the setting is sort of cozy. The forest provides the man with shelter and fruit. The ocean gives him fish. The rain gives him drinking water. Before the turtle turns into a woman, he even has company thanks to the adorable crabs skittering across the beach. After the turtle becomes his wife and the two have a son, the island seems like an even nicer place to live. The trio appear pretty happy. The inviting setting makes “The Red Turtle” a pleasant film to visit as you watch it.

If there is indeed any deeper meaning to “The Red Turtle,” it might have gone over my head. Maybe the film is just meant to be enjoyed as a collection of beautiful images? Or perhaps it's not anything more than a dream-like story of love and connection found in an unexpected place? Or maybe the director just really likes turtles? Whatever the intention behind it, the movie remains strangely touching and is certainly worth seeing for its spellbinding animation. I'm glad the Academy decided to honor a unique motion picture like this one. [7/10]

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