Movie Review: The Red Turtle (2016)

Posted: May 4, 2017 in Movie Reviews
Tags: , , ,

The_Red_TurtleThe Red Turtle (2016)

Director- Michael Dudok de Wit

PG- some thematic elements and peril


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A man stranded on a desert island finds his attempts to escape thwarted by a mysterious red turtle.

I’ve heard it said that genres of music spring into existence in reaction to other genres of music — loud, obnoxious, stripped-down punk in reaction to the sweeping excess of early 70s rock, for instance — and I wonder if we aren’t seeing the same thing happening in animation. As mainstream animated films become manic, louder, more comedy-oriented, and rendered in often lifeless 3D, an entire niche industry is forming around traditional animation, preserving and reinventing it simultaneously, approaching the form like a sacred relic that must be handled with love and care. It’s hard not to miss the glory days of 2D animation, when it was everywhere and each year offered numerous quality films in the style. But the reverence with which the last of its devotees treat it now is inimitable, a fondness born of absence, something that could only ever have been achieved organically.

In short, I’m not sure if The Red Turtle could have existed twenty years ago, and that, if nothing else, is an incredible silver lining to the slow, but hopefully impermanent death of this genre.

All movies are art, in my opinion, even the bad ones, but The Red Turtle feels like the sort of thing for which that pedestal is especially reserved — expressive, far-reaching, daring, trying to capture the full sweep of human existence and distill it into something simple and emotive, something we feel capable of grasping even as its complexity continues to elude us. It’s a beautiful piece of visual poetry and a moving exercise in the philosophy of cinema as pure experience.

The Red Turtle feels like the sum total of the progression of film animation to date, simultaneously old-fashioned and distinctly modern. Its lush, hand-painted vista of rainforest and sea immediately summons the most vibrant of animated classics to mind, but the fluidity and grace of its animation places it distinctly in the modern world. It’s an ideal blend of 2D and 3D animation, used to fill its gorgeous world to the corners of each frame.

It’s a film that hides complexity beneath a simplistic veneer in many respects, and that includes the animation — it isn’t showy; there’s never a moment where it’s self-consciously trying to show you something beautiful. It isn’t out to impress. It simply is beautiful, and if your eyes are open, you won’t miss a moment of it. It allows the wonders it has created to sink in, drawing viewers’ reactions from within themselves rather than shouting it from the screen until someone pays attention.

It suits the story, which somehow manages to be everything you expect it to be and something wholly unique all at once. You can’t strip a film much barer than The Red Turtle — the movie begins on and never goes anywhere other than the island, only develops a cast of three human characters, and has no dialogue, instead telling its story through sound and visuals. Even as someone who’s used to this kind of thing, it never ceased to amaze me how much depth The Red Turtle was able to acquire solely through images. It doesn’t need words to sketch detailed characters or a compelling world. It’s the ultimate exercise in “show, don’t tell,” conclusively proving that what we see connects with us much more deeply than what we hear. What begins as a simple story of survival becomes so much more as the movie, through pure suggestion, adds more layers. It becomes a parable of life itself, in all its joys, wonders, tragedies, and struggles. It’s gently moving and deeply cutting, and there’s no contradiction — it’s simultaneously one of 2016’s most beautiful and most melancholy movies. It’s uplifting, life-affirming, and depressing. It, as life, contains multitudes. It’s layered in metaphor and ambiguity, feeling very much like the fairy tales that seem to have been its inspiration — it makes more emotional than logical sense, but the sense it makes is near-perfect nonetheless. Despite its familiar structure, it becomes one of the year’s most unpredictable films — it’s too adventurous, and casts its net far too widely, to succumb to foregone conclusions.

Any movie will generate a mix of reactions — different strokes, after all. But The Red Turtle especially so. It offers both a framework and a blank canvas for its viewers to paint on, drawing their own conclusions and connecting with it in their own way. I was unprepared for its potency, the extent to which it would have my heart in its hands to do with what it pleased. It’s brisk but memorable viewing, heartfelt in a way that has to be seen in order to be properly understood. However underwhelming it was on the whole, 2016 at least had the decency to save a few of its best for last.


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