Movie Review: The Red Turtle.
After months of waiting and a long trip, I caught up with The Red Turtle. Was it worth it?
This is the final Oscar nominated animated feature we’ll be covering. We’ve tacked Moana, Zootopia, and Kubo and the Two Strings already. My Life as a Zucchini won’t be getting a release date till well after the Oscars are over (and so few people have even heard of it, I doubt it’s a serious contender for Best Animated Feature.) This film has been on my list to review for ages. It finally came to my area…and by that I mean it was a short 2 hour drive north to finally see this.
I have to say that I’m pleased to have caught this film, but it’s not the knockout I had hoped for. None of the animated features have been game changers. Each did some things extremely well, but not everything. Unfortunately, the same can be said of The Red Turtle. It has its own type of nostalgic beauty, and the story is captivating. It has moments of heartbreaking pathos. The film’s reliance on quiet guestures and small touches is a double edged sword. The emotional highs are separated by long sections of inaction, and the middle of the film lacks focus. There’s a beautiful film here, but it may not have needed a full length run time.
The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) (2016)
A man is shipwrecked at sea and tossed, half dead, onto the shores of a deserted island. There is fresh water and food to be had, but no signs of habitation. Desperate to leave, the man builds several rafts to carry him off the island, but each is mysteriously wrecked. On his third attempt, he spots the reason: a gigantic red sea turtle keeps bumping his constructions until they fall apart. He despairs of ever leaving the island, until one day a mysterious red-haired woman appears.
The Red Turtle has no dialogue and a very restrained score. Visual cues and ambient noise make up the bulk of the narrative techniques. It resembles one of those relaxation CD’s you see in a gift shop, filled with natural sounds and soothing string instruments. It enhances the dream-like quality of the film, but it’s not terribly exciting or memorable.
The nature itself, in the form of the island and the red turtle, are the primary driver of tension in the film. I could be tempted to call them the antagonists, but this really isn’t a “man versus nature” drama. It is more a “man in nature” tale. The central dilemma quickly changes from escape to how to make the best use of his new life on the island.
Our protagonist isn’t a bad type; he feeds the crabs that follow him around and is generally peaceable with his surroundings. That being said, you do get the feeling he is used to being in charge of nature instead of its guest. When the island or turtle thwart him, he reacts angrily, and it gets him into trouble. The fact that he is generally a soft touch who goes out of his way not to hurt things underscores his desperation, and his ability to take nature as it comes marks his growth.
His narrative arc reminds me a little of Passengers. A generally nice person is goaded into a heinous act by desperation, and the rest of the narrative is his atonement and eventual redemption. While this film doesn’t strip the female protagonist of agency like Passengers did, she’s definitely less developed. It’s hard to even describe without spoiling the film’s plot, but there is definitely reasons why she shouldn’t be with him, but the story of their lives together is the meat of the plot.
A Tender Romance.
Despite a rocky beginning, the man and woman’s story is a heartfelt and moving romance. There are a few scenes of action and danger, but the film is solidly their story. Without words or music, every little gesture is used to show two people who have found real intimacy. Every time they nestle together against the wind or touch each others hand, we get the completion of a current. This isn’t a Nicholas Sparks drama, with grand moments of passion. It is an utterly human drama of everyday affection and tenderness.
A Forgotten Style.
The aesthetic of The Red Turtle hearkens back to European animation from the 1970’s. The animation for characters is spare and lithe, and it pays subtle attention to realistic movement and kinesthetics. The characters move in a scrupulously realistic manner. This initial awkwardness turns into ballet when the characters are in water. The man initially swims in a doggedly human way, but as he spends more time with the red haired woman, we see his stroke become fluid, languid, and more like a sea creature.
While the island is lovingly detailed, the film shines when it comes to showing the ocean. Once again, a spare style is employed, with a nearly empty blue canvas dotted with fish or vegetation. The line between swimming and flight is blurred, and the lack of detail makes the distinction between sea and sky academic. In one dream sequence, the man flies out over the ocean, using a stroke we later see him use while swimming. The red haired woman comes from the ocean to make a life on the land, and the man learns to leave the land and become at home in the sea.
The Beginning and End.
The Red Turtle is an emotionally potent film that uses small sounds and restrained movements to convey subtle feeling. My only reservation is the middle of the film seems to lack focus and meanders. Director Michael Dudok de Wit typically produces short films, and The Red Turtle may have been better served in that format. There is an arc about the child that our lovers produce, but it never really seems to amount to much. The initial blundering romance and the solid, sturdy love the man and woman build is the real focus.
This is a good film, and certainly an exceptional one in the sense that so few animated features are made this way any more. Beyond that, I can’t say that this film will likely have a very wide appeal. It is a shame, since the ending is one that has the emotional voltage to haunt a viewer, and will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten the rest of the film.