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Review: The Red Turtle – “A magical experience”

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One of the best films I have seen this year comes in the shape of The Red Turtle, a different, wonderful work of art that’s touching, elegant, and quite ethereal. It’s only the third film produced by the world-renown Japanese animation film studio Studio Ghibli since the studio’s co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, retired. Studio Ghibli, responsible for 8 of the top 15 highest-grossing Japanese anime films of all time, including internationally acclaimed films such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001), is one of the most prestigious animation studios in the world and is famous for their beautifully animated films, and deep, character driven narratives. The Red Turtle is no different in those aspects, yet it’s almost a complete new look for the studio. It’s the studio’s first film directed by a non-Japanese animator, casting the Dutch Michael Dudok de Wit in what serves as his feature film debut.

The film, which premiered in the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, has no dialogue all-through its short, but powerful, 80 minutes. It’s hard to talk about the film’s narrative without giving away some of the film’s mysteries. Essentially, it’s a film about the different stages of a man’s life, from the moment he gets stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck. Although the premise of a stranded man on an island’s survival story sounds all too familiar, the film transcends the melodramatic components of typical films of this nature to create a very human film, as it also addresses themes of acceptance, family values, adaptation and (obviously) survival.

The first act of the film, up until the encounter with the mystical and mysterious Red Turtle (whose significance in the film I won’t spoil) is unbelievably intense. Since there is no dialogue whatsoever, at no point do we know what’s going through the protagonist’s mind as he’s faced with adversity time after time and his survival is jeopardized. What this manages is to get the audience involved in an unparalleled way; we get into the character’s head, and we start to think as he thinks. As we are free to wonder inside our minds, it becomes a game of “what would you be thinking in that precise situation, in that exact moment?” We are creating the character’s thoughts and therefore, to an extent, we are all the protagonist, and the protagonist can be anyone. Of course, a film with no dialogue wouldn’t work without a powerful and carefully composed soundtrack, and The Red Turtle’s is second to none.

In regards to the animation, Dudok de Wit and Studio Ghibli went big, and delivered big, as always. There’s a noticeable change in style from their previous Japanese films, which were very traditional anime characters and almost entirely of Japanese influence, The Red Turtle is a much more westernized style of drawings, however the fantastic drawings of landscapes and horizons still maintained a very Studio Ghibli- look. It´s much less focused on the character’s details, instead focusing on long shots and panoramic shots, like paintings. The film is colourful, rich, and very much alive. Although it follows a very simple, chronological, fictional story that creates a beautiful portrait of the different stages in a man’s life, we eventually come to the realization that, despite the exciting premise of a survival film portrayed in the first act, the man’s life before the island is as irrelevant as the character’s name; it’s like a magical trip about how he makes a home of the island, and the significance of love in the process.

Like many of the studio’s films, The Red Turtle is hardly a film for children. Although it’s completely appropriate for youngsters as far as nudity, violence, etc. goes, the slow pace of the second half of the film, coupled with the fact that it has no dialogue, a child’s shorter attention span would most likely succumb to boredom. For a more mature audience, including 90s kids that grew up watching Miyazaki’s films with Studio Ghibli, it’s a magical experience that will seem familiar to those more acquainted with their films, and a visually delightful and touching one for the newcomers. The film is extremely well-rounded and engaging. It’s short. It’s sweet. Give it a go.

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