This is the last one, I promise: the final wrap-up of my analysis of 2016 Academy Award contenders. Catching every nominee is a hopeless cause; but as a dewy-eyed True Believer in animation as a rapidly evolving artform, I do make a point of trying to see all the Best Animated Feature picks. Sadly, My Life as a Zucchini never made it to a theater near you (or me). This year’s other oddball foreign entry, The Red Turtle, has finally surfaced, however, and should stick around for another week at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. See it if you can.
The Red Turtle is being marketed, cannily enough, as a co-production of the prestigious Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, and it is reported that the film’s genesis was sparked by Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki’s enthusiasm for Dutch/British director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-winning 2000 short, Father and Daughter. But The Red Turtle has much more in common aesthetically with de Wit’s very European earlier work than it does with Japanese anime style. Where the backgrounds of a Studio Ghibli movie are typically dense with painstakingly painted detail and bright colors, this simple, wordless tale of a shipwrecked sailor mostly unfolds against muted, Impressionistic expanses of sand and sea and sky. The human characters are barely sketched and have no dialogue at all, but still somehow manage to convey profound volumes of feeling.
The island where the protagonist is washed up appears to be somewhere in Asia – there’s a dense bamboo forest in the interior – but the folkloric roots of the story could be from most anywhere. In Northern Europe, its analogue would be a selkie legend, but in this case the shapeshifting woman (or perhaps goddess) is a sea turtle, rather than a seal. In her animal form she stymies his repeated attempts to escape from the island on a bamboo raft – as it turns out, because she has fallen in love with him. He sees only a threatening gigantic turtle, and kills her in his frustration. But that’s only the awkward beginning of their long and tender story together.
It feels strange not to be able to praise voice actors for their contributions to an animated film’s emotional heft. “Deceptively simple” is the phrase that reviewers keep grasping in their efforts to convey what must be seen to be understood in The Red Turtle. Its characters say more in a simple gesture than most animated critters do in half an hour’s worth of clever chatter. So do land and sea and sky. I’ve never seen angles of sunlight, moonlight and shadow, or the paths of the wind through leaves and grasses and the surface of water, rendered so carefully as they appear here – to the point where the viewer can always tell what time of day or night it is. You can almost feel the temperature, the humidity. Countless tiny clues tell you how much time has elapsed since the previous scene. By the end, the geography of the island will be as familiar to you as if you too had spent years living on it, nearly-but-not-quite alone, and the sailor’s little family will feel like your own.
Too many words ill become a movie like this, which is all about the visual evocation of nature and survival, archetypes and dreams and redemption. So I’ll just urge you to go see The Red Turtle. You will find it beautiful and moving.