Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 81 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. This animated film about a shipwrecked man struggling to survive on an isolated island, because of its focus on the passage of time, includes some scenes about sickness and death, including a few in which animals die, are attacked, or killed. Also some scary scenes, including a tsunami; implied nudity when characters are swimming or standing in the water; and a romantic relationship that results in the birth of a child.
The animation of ‘The Red Turtle’ is exquisite, making the film a visual splendor. But the story itself is almost simplistic to a fault, flirting with the fantastical but not going far enough.
By Roxana Hadadi
Time cannot move backward. The only way to progress—even in the face of what seems like insurmountable challenges—is forward, and that approach to life is what “The Red Turtle” accentuates in beautiful detail. This is a stunningly animated film, breath-taking in its simplistic beauty; ironically, though, that streamlined approach is exactly what decreases the impact of its plot. The imagery is gorgeous, but “The Red Turtle” frustratingly teases the fantastical without committing enough.
“The Red Turtle,” co-produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli (of “When Marnie Was There,” “The Wind Rises,” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”), focuses on a shipwrecked man, swept out of his boat and into the churning seas during a rainstorm (animated terrifyingly and enthrallingly in overlapping shades of blue and grey). When he wakes up on a sandy beach, he realizes that the island—with a perimeter of rocks, one large hill formation, and an interior of bamboo forest—is uninhabited, meaning it’s only him, the seals, the insects, and the curious crabs who keep crawling out of their holes to watch him.
Anyone could go crazy in that isolation, and the man almost does. He sees a bridge rising out of the water to escort him away—a dream. He spots an orchestral four-piece playing classical music on the beach—a hallucination. The only thing to do seems to be building a raft and trying to make it across the ocean, but each structure he builds is broken apart by a mysterious underwater creature he can’t spot. And while his audience of crabs comes out for every raft launching, they don’t offer up any information about his watery assailant.
Until one day when the man spots it for himself: a humongous red turtle, beautifully colored and larger than he is. But whether the turtle is friend or foe is one question, and what the man will do once he finalizes his judgment of the turtle’s intentions is another.
There is a magic to “The Red Turtle” that comes nearly singularly from its depiction of natural life, and those gorgeously rendered details are the most eye-catching and impactful. They seem mundane, but isn’t most of life the everyday that we don’t appreciate? The unceasing movement of waves, crashing and rising and forming on their own, unstopping and unyielding. The countless different shades of green in a forest, in the moss and the grass and the leaves and the wood. An onslaught of baby turtles propelling their little bodies forward to the crashing waves, struggling against the current before realizing that giving up their self-control will carry them home. The sound of cicadas in a bamboo grove; the silent flapping of a bat’s wings; the struggle of a fly caught in a spider’s web; the gradual, irreversible change of a sunny, colorful day into a starry, velvety night. The moments that happen when you’re not even paying attention are what make “The Red Turtle” so hypnotic and life-affirming.
Perhaps the story has to be so simple to give the visuals the attention they deserve, but it still feels lacking. Because the film’s dialogue is nonexistent (there are fewer than a dozen or so words spoken over its runtime), the focus here has to be on other things; nevertheless, the lack of any kind of conversation makes the film’s languid pace sometimes feel particularly tedious. And slightly irritating too is the narrative’s use of a few fantastical elements without a real commitment to exploring them further. When another person arrives on the island, their appearance opens up a series of questions about the man’s relationship to the natural world, but “The Red Turtle” pivots instead toward romantic love and family dynamics. The use of the fantasy world but the refusal to interact with it fully feels a bit like cheating.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the way “The Red Turtle” depicts our world, with its matter-of-fact observations about life and death and its subtle depictions of time’s linear march. With its simple line drawings, lush landscapes, and fluid underwater sequences, “The Red Turtle” gives us an animated experience that is hard to forget, even if the narrative isn’t much to remember.
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