Thursday 8 December 2016

The Red Turtle (2016) - Movie Review
I’m not going to say that, back when I reviewed When Marnie Was There, I called it when I said that Studio Ghibli shutting down just wasn’t going to happen… not yet, at any rate. And it seems that that wound up being accurate, between Miyazaki himself announcing that he was working on one last film and the film I’m talking about today. However, the need to voice that is outweighed by the basic gratitude I have that one of the true titans of the industry is still going. With companies like nWave and Splash Entertainment showing us in this year alone that they were capable of producing absolute garbage to our screens, that thought is invaluable to someone who compulsively watches as many films as I do. So, with that out of the way, how does this Ghibli and French animation collaboration turn out?

The plot: An unnamed man washes up on a deserted island. He spends his time trying to survive on what the island can provide for him, all the while trying to escape the island, and eventually he encounters a giant red turtle. What begins as an aggressive act of self-preservation eventually turns into… well, it’s hard to really explain without ruining the entire point of the film.

Aside from a few miscellaneous noises and a few yellings of “Hey!”, there is no real cast to speak of here, hence why there will be no cast rundown like I usually do. Instead, this is another title meant to convey its story through music and visuals, using as little verbal communication as possible, and dear Lord, this film is gorgeously animated. The character designs incorporate a bit of Tintin in the facial expressions, but the movement on screen is so smooth and gliding that it is quite serene just watching a man walk on the beach. This is aided by the sort of finely-tuned attention to detail that Miyazaki, Takahata and Ghibli as a whole have made healthy filmographies out of, resulting what can only be described as a true visual marvel.

The story being told through those visuals is… well, kind of strange. Starting out as the version of Cast Away that Robert Zemeckis wishes he had the deftness of touch to tell, it goes from there into an adventure story, a romance, a family drama, a disaster film and back again, all without any of it feeling out of place. Much like the animation, the story progression is as stable and flowing as the ocean tide washing onto the beach with the potential to be just as devastating, creating a simple and serene yet always engaging story.

The relationship between man and nature has long been a theme of Ghibli’s work, and this is probably one of the more overt examples of that because this film is soaking in it. From displays of the island’s food chain at work to watching our protagonist try and survive (and possibly leave) the island, even including a bit of cosmic irony with a scene showing him rummaging in a puddle for drinking water, only for it start to pouring down with rain a few seconds later. It also carries the theme of man prospering by working with nature instead of fighting against it, literally illustrated for us through some very subtle and absolutely breathtaking animation touches.

However, more so than being a tale about man’s relationship with nature, this is a tale about man in and of itself. It’s a story where the only real definition for the characters, aside from their connection to each other, is that they are human and it is a great depiction of our capacity for survival in spite of what nature throws at us. It acknowledges that man must respect nature, but it also acknowledges that man is one of nature’s greatest fighters in how it is able to recover from so much and still continue to thrive. Have to admit, in these tales that involve man at the mercy of nature, it’s rare that they will admit to what man and nature, at their core, ultimately have in common: The ability to survive the damage that they inflict on each other.

All in all, this is a rare breed of visually fixated story that is at once intense and incredibly peaceful. Of all the films I’ve covered so far this year, this might be the single most calming I’ve sat through. Its awe-inspiring animation, its simplicity of story and its deft touch when it comes to emotion through pure visuals all equal out to a film that more than lives up to Studio Ghibli’s pedigree, and an incredibly triumphant feature debut for writer/director Michaël Dubok de Witt.

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