The Red Turtle – Review (*** 1/2)

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Studio Ghibli collaborates with Oscar winner Michael Dudok de Wit (the 2000 animated short Father and Daughter) for this sedate but typically gorgeous tale of man-versus-nature that packs an unexpected emotional wallop.

The minimalist yarn follows a man who shipwrecks on a nondescript island and finds his various attempts to escape via a life raft thwarted by a beautiful but irascible red turtle. Soon enough, however, he encounters an unexpected guest who changes his life forever.

It’s worth knowing from the outset that this is card-carrying art-house fare through and through, touting a not-so-logical narrative and unfolding without a single word of spoken dialogue. Even with just 80 minutes of length, there are certainly sluggish moments, but when these slower moments pay off, as they so frequently do, they evoke an immense sweep indeed.

Above all else, The Red Turtle is a terrific exercise in style as anything remotely associated with Studio Ghibli surely is. The animation itself isn’t remotely flamboyant or flashy, but makes the most of its rather spare locale all the same, and it’s clear that a meticulous effort has been made to bring it to us looking this evocative. A soul-stirring score from Laurent Perez Del Mar also contributes massively to the film’s frequently awe-inspiring, goosebumps-raising mood, even when you may not be 100% sure exactly what’s going on.

Things take a fairly surprising (and arguably more conventional) turn at the mid-way point, opening the narrative’s emotional pores up and building towards a resolution that’s at once tremendously affecting and more than a little obtuse.

It’s fair to say that the style can’t help but drive the narrative due to its minimalist conception, but more often than not, the gamble pays off. While its spare story feels easily inferior to the spectacular audio-visual package and it’s probably a little longer than it needs to be, this is still a divertingly mature animation that stands out distinctly among the medium’s other offerings this year.

*** 1/2

The Red Turtle premieres at the London Film Festival on October 5th and releases in the US on January 20th

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