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Oscar-nominated ‘Red Turtle’ explores whole new worlds of animation

Shipwrecked on an island, a castaway builds a raft, but a beautiful red turtle keeps thwarting his dreams of escape in the Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle.”
Shipwrecked on an island, a castaway builds a raft, but a beautiful red turtle keeps thwarting his dreams of escape in the Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle.” TNS

Even viewers who have a hard time with Japanese anime (I can’t be the only one) will be blown away by the Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle,” an achingly beautiful fable about a shipwrecked man that without one word of dialogue creates a fully credible world.

Produced by Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli and written and directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, “Turtle” opens spectacularly with a storm at sea — it’s like a Hokusai woodblock print come to life. Almost lost among the foam and towering waves is a human form, a man struggling to stay afloat.

Like Robinson Crusoe, our unnamed, unspeaking hero finds himself stranded on an uninhabited island. Little by little, he learns the tricks of survival, eating fish and fruit, clothing himself in sealskin, drinking fresh water from an inland pool surrounded by a lush bamboo forest.

De Wit places much emphasis on small but exquisitely rendered details: a soundtrack filled with natural noises, studies of the creatures that share the island with the man (curious crabs, birds, millipedes).

Almost immediately, our hero begins thinking about escape. He constructs a series of rafts, which are inexplicably destroyed by some unseen sea creature apparently bent on keeping him on the island.

Finally the culprit is revealed … a huge red sea turtle.

The scenario from De Wit and Pascale Ferran is full of ambiguities. We don’t know when or where the story unfolds (it could be anywhere from the 17th century to the present day). Is our protagonist a common seaman or a wealthy passenger? Educated or ignorant?

Moreover, some of the yarn’s more fantastic elements (not to mention the overall dreamlike feel) suggest that what we’re seeing may be the hallucinations of a dying man. Perhaps not.

From a purely visual point of view, “Red Turtle” is a masterpiece. The renderings of the seascapes and forested interior, the dramatic interplay of light and shadow — these are presented with a deceptive simplicity that becomes ever more eloquent.

The film’s big emotional impact is all the more remarkable when you consider that the human here is not particularly expressive. He has button eyes and facial features that don’t tell us much. De Wit almost never employs a close-up, preferring to present a larger landscape. Only the eyebrows tell us what he’s thinking.

Seriously folks, you have never seen so much information expressed by mere eyebrows.

But then there’s the incredible eloquence of the body language. The way these figures move, the way they seem to have weight even in repose — all suggest a rich inner life.

A one-of-a-kind film that lingers long in the memory, “The Red Turtle” suggests that when it comes to animation, there are still whole new worlds to explore.

(At Studio 28.)

Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘The Red Turtle’

  1/2

Rated PG. Time: 1:20.

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