The Red Turtle transforms from a stark drama of man versus nature into a more fantastical fable, writes MacDara Conroy
It wasn’t meant to turn out this way. Storied Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was supposed to shutter — original reports varied from a temporary halt to outright closure — upon the retirement of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, who produced what would be his final film in The Wind Rises. The slate would be cleared following the release of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, by Miyazaki’s longtime production partner Isao Takahata (and one of the finest films in the Ghibli canon), and Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s bittersweet drama When Marnie Was There. And that was that, we were told; the end of a era.
But no, as it turns out, there would be another: The Red Turtle, a project in the works since 2008, and the first non-in-house production to bear the studio’s marque. Miyazaki, it seems, was so impressed by 2000 short Father and Daughter to charge French producers Wild Bunch with finding its director, London-based Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, and propose that he helm a feature. The film Dudok de Wit gave them, co-written with French filmmaker Pascale Ferran, is expectedly a very different prospect in the studio’s oeuvre, but it also fits more neatly than you might think.
Opening upon a grim, roiling ocean, as a lone figure is tossed among the swells, the immediate impression is that of Takahata’s darker, more impressionistic Ghibli films. Those looming waves, flattened but constantly undulating watercolour patterns, recall the Japanese block prints that so enthralled the western art world in the 19th century. But the face of that lone figure is something else, more Tintin than anime, signalling that this is indeed uncharted territory for Ghibli.
The man — who is never named and never speaks, save for the odd monosyllabic yell — washes up on an island that has everything he needs to survive, except for human companionship. He builds a succession of rafts and tries to leave, but before he can reach the atoll, an unseen force from below destroys his vessels.
Eventually the man confronts the titular beast, a guardian of a kind for the island, and their altercation not only changes his life forever, but also transforms the story from a stark drama of man versus nature to a more fantastical fable. The less said about that here the better; suffice it to say that it may lose some viewers who felt it was going somewhere else, but stick with it for the journey, as it touches on our human conflict with our own nature, on the existential quandary of life and death, and stirs emotions just as masterfully as Ghibli’s most poignant.
And while The Red Turtle does struggle to fit the feature format — it’s a stretch at 80 minutes, when it could probably tell its tale with the same power in half that time — the fact that the story is conveyed through its images alone, with no dialogue and hardly any music cues? That’s a remarkable film, indeed, more than deserving of its Oscar nomination earlier this year. (And as it happens, it’s a turning point for Ghibli, too, as Miyazaki plans his return from retirement to helm the studio’s next chapter.)
Also out this week is a more bombastic maritime tale, and a reboot of sorts for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Salazar’s Revenge pits Javier Bardem’s cursed pirate hunter against a new generation of freebooters in Will Turner’s son Henry (Brenton Thwaites, basically reprising his fresh-faced hero from Gods of Egypt) and witch-branded woman of science Carina (Kaya Scodelario, no damsel in distress here) in the search for the mythical trident of Poseidon, said to grant its holder control of the seas.
As the subtitle suggests, however, there’s some unfinished business that requires the presence of Johnny Depp’s ridiculous drunk-Keith-Richards impersonator Jack Sparrow, who drags down every scene in which he plays a prominent role. He’s done, and not just because of the abuse allegations. Geoffrey Rush also reprises the bewigged Barbarosa in a film that fails to shake off the barnacles of its tired history, anchored faster by (blessedly brief) appearances from some other franchise faces.
But Norwegian directing duo Roenberg make a good stab at it, much better than previous turgid instalments. It moves at a quick clip, with some exciting set pieces — including a bank robbery that takes the term literally — and a consistent sense of the spectacular (if a little too loud in places) that’s exactly what you want from a kid-friendly summer blockbuster. And it shows some promise for where the story can go from here, if only it could let go of the past.
The Red Turtle opens in selected cinemas on Friday May 26th. Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge opens nationwide on Thursday May 25th
Also published on Medium.