Today, I ventured out to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas to see The Red Turtle, the first (to my knowledge, anyway) Studio Ghibli production to be directed by a Westerner, London-based Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit. The result of this unlikely collaboration is a thoroughly fascinating cinematic poem, an ambitious experiment that is viscerally felt rather than logically understood (hardly surprising, considering Isao Takahata is credited as “Creative Producer”). This makes it difficult to describe in concrete terms… but I’ll take a stab at it.
Aside from the occasional monosyllabic grunt or unintelligible cry, The Red Turtle is dialogue-free; in place of words, the filmmakers utilize imagery to convey narrative, emotion, and tone. In the earliest scenes, the protagonist, a castaway stranded on a remote island, is consistently dwarfed by his environment, little more than a vague, insignificant shape amongst the 100-foot high waves, dense bamboo thickets, and endless miles of ocean. Whether he’s navigating a narrow crevasse to escape a submerged cave or reacting with numb resignation as a scavenged barrel splinters under its own weight the moment it touches shore, the immediate conflict, stakes, and obstacles are always crystal clear. All that said, it would be inaccurate to call the film a purely visual exercise: the oppressive natural symphony of buzzing insects, screeching seagulls, and crashing surf plays an integral role in shaping the overall rhythm and mood, making The Red Turtle anything but a traditional “silent movie.”
I’ll refrain from discussing the plot in any more detail, as the deceptively simple setup leads to some genuinely unpredictable twists. I will say that The Red Turtle is every bit as magical and evocative as any other Studio Ghibli tale, but never at the expense of Dudok de Wit’s personal creative vision (immediately apparent in the character designs, which are more reminiscent of Herge than mainstream anime). As the company reassesses its identity and place in the industry in the wake of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, I hope that it will continue to take risks and seek out more idiosyncratic voices. If future partnerships are even half as fruitful as this one, Ghibli might yet prove that it can outlive its legendary founders.
[Originally written January 21, 2017.]