Everybody remembers when Studio Ghibli announced in 2014 that they would be taking a break from producing films. Fans of the Japanese animation studio felt a profound sense of loss as one of the biggest and well-respected studios shut its doors. But thankfully, Ghibli seem to be still working, though in a different capacity. Their latest project is a co-production with Dutch animation director Michaël Dubok de Wit, The Red Turtle. Could this film mean a new way of producing films for Ghibli, and more importantly is the film any good?
Entirely without dialogue, The Red Turtle focuses on a man lost at sea, washed up on a desert island. He tries to escape the island, but his bamboo raft is destroyed each time by an unknown presence that turns out to be the titular red turtle. After another unsuccessful attempt to leave, the man is joined by a mysterious woman. The man and the woman have a son together, and the man seems contented on his island.
One cannot deny the visual majesty of the film. There is a fantastic combination of national styles; from France the ligne claire (or clear line) style that was made famous by Hergé’s Tintin books and from Japan the classic ukiyo-e style or painting popular in the Edo period, the key example of the style being The Great Wave off Kanagawa. While this may sound as if these two styles couldn’t possibly mesh together, the finished product begs to differ. It looks almost exactly like a hand-drawn picture that has come to life. Using many different animation techniques to create this stunning world, all of them seem to blend perfectly. The film uses computer rotoscoping and hand-drawn backgrounds to create a movie with such a palpable atmosphere you can feel the tropical heat pouring off the screen. It is a true testament to the skill of Ghibli and Dubok de Wit that they can make a film of such staggering beauty. No surprise really as Isao Takahata (the man behind Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya) was the artistic producer.
While visually stunning the story was, I thought a little weak. Most of the time I was engrossed by the nameless castaway’s struggle against the island the sea and despair, but when it gets to the second act, I found that the film had switched tracks very suddenly, without proper build up or explanation. While not bad, I just thought that the movie had missed a few story possibilities and its sentimentality took me out of the film. This may just be my taste in movies; I tend to dislike sentimentality (and personally between me and the internet I did find Ghibli’s later films to be overly saccharine). While your tolerance for this may vary, I did find the romance distracting and questionable. However, story is not the films focus it is the stunning visuals and beautiful vistas on display, though there is such a thing as style over substance.
That being said within the story there were some fantastic set pieces, for example the brief montage of the man and woman’s son growing up on the island is remarkably charming and funny, while the tsunami sequence has a dread and tension to it that makes it almost feel as though the crushing sea water is coming down on you. Any time the characters went swimming was calming and beautiful. Oh and the crabs, I don’t know how they did it, but the filmmakers made crabs cute.
The Red Turtle is a must see for anyone who is a fan of animation, Studio Ghibli, or good film in general, it is gorgeous, emotional, and so relaxing, just like a holiday. I would urge you to try and track down a screening of this film, or failing that demand one. It is truly too good to wait till it comes to the small screen. It shows that Ghibli is not as dead as we feared and it has introduced the world to a unique talent in the world of animation through Dubok de Wit; I can’t wait to see what they do next.