Fantastic Fest Review: ‘THE RED TURTLE’ – visual splendor without a narrative shell

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James Cole Clay // Film Critic

THE RED TURTLE | 80 min | PG
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit

Some have called Studio Ghibli’s THE RED TURTLE “a quiet masterpiece” for its gorgeous ocean vistas and life affirming themes. The appeal is certainly there, but I left the film feeling a little cold towards the material.

This is the widely heralded Japanese animation studio’s first French film – containing no dialogue (other than a few grunts and shouts). This allows director Michael Dudok de Wit to drop the narrative and paint an expressionistic canvas that is among the most beautiful animated films of all time. However, the problem lies within a dull narrative.

The movie opens with a castaway who washes up on the shore of a gorgeous island. He learns to navigate the terrain and find food. But all good things must come to an end: He tries to leave, only to have his makeshift raft upheaved by a giant red sea turtle.

We’re introduced to a beach that’s as barren as the unnamed castaway’s life he was forced to leave behind. These huge existential allegories are there, but mining them out of a sea of the images seemed nearly as impossible as being rescued.

Proof that THE RED TURTLE is gorgeous. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic)

Proof that THE RED TURTLE is gorgeous. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It seems almost criminal to call an animated film “style over substance,” but that’s what we have here. THE RED TURTLE is the movie version of an ambient nature CDs you here a day spas. The entire film is astounding to look at, with each frame serving as a perfectly colored painting with an intense detail that any art collector would be happy to hang up. But without many narrative signifiers, it’s difficult to connect their meaning.

This was hands down one of my most anticipated films of Fantastic Fest. The animation style and sound design are a match made in heaven, but by the end, the film acts as a feature length montage. It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint specific scenes. There are some adorable crabs begging for food and a dazzling waterfall, but the marriage between visual splendor and narrative backbone never coagulated for me.

Michael Dudok de Wit deserves an immense amount of credit for bringing this project to the screen. The labored work is a sight to behold and he’s certainly aiming to find deeper truths than your average story of a castaway.

THE RED TURTLE didn’t hit the mark , but it’s likely to be in the running for Best Animated feature at next year’s Oscars. The film just feels like padding a short to a feature length, and I can’t lie: the 80-minute runtime felt long. At least it’s safe to say this is the best movie starring a turtle released this year.

THE RED TURTLE opens January 2017.