HOLLYWOOD—Ghibli movies are one of the great things about being a cinema lover. Classics like “Princess Mononoke”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, and “Spirited Away” are some of masterpieces the acclaimed studio has given the world. Always gorgeous, engaging, and thought provoking they stand as a testament to both animation and film’s power as an art form. Now we add to this list “The Red Turtle”, a tremendously powerful and frankly more mature addition to Ghibli’s long list of classics. Not only is it one of the best animated movies of 2016, but it has to be counted as one of the best films of the year.
The story is simple enough. An unnamed cast away finds himself trapped on a remote island. His repeated attempts to escape are frustrated by a giant, red turtle. I don’t want to give too much away here, but eventually he is introduced to a woman and the couple live life together and have a son on their beautiful but isolated home.
The film is entirely without dialogue. Being a writer I’m one to appreciate the power of words. How does one show visually such complex ideas as those expressed by Camus, Dostoevsky, Baldwin, or Shakespeare. “The Red Turtle” is beautiful in that what it says is simple, but it is said so well and poignantly it’s as if we have never heard it before. Many people painted poverty, but few did it like Van Gogh. Many painters toyed with light and color, but Monet is always something to behold. It doesn’t really need dialogue to communicate its meaning. We have already heard this message, but never like this. To say something old in a new and perceptive way takes brilliance.
One thing that struck me was the maturity of this film. While many Ghibli movies tackle adult themes (environmentalism, war, women’s rights, etc.) this one had an edge to it you just don’t see in the studio’s other efforts. Like many of the studio’s films there are moments of joy, but there are moments of sadness here as well. Sometimes they are subtle, and this makes them more realistic. In keeping with this more worldly tone the island itself is a beautiful but not romantic place. Death abounds there. We see it all forms of life inhabiting the remote place. This might seem cynical at a glance but it isn’t. When the seal dies, it is used for clothing. When a carcass washes up on the beach it feeds the crabs who in turn feed the birds. You could say it’s a more grown up version of “The Lion King”, but it’s more eloquent than even that animated classic.
This whole commentary on the cycle of life is translated to relationships as well. Love nourishes life by making it affirming. This doesn’t end but is passed on and on endlessly. We feel it in the connections that the survivor, woman, and their son form. Things never end, not really. All actions, relationships, and to an extent our own thoughts and dreams have enormous and far reaching effects far beyond our ability to see. This is not unlike the vast ocean that surrounds the island with its waves and currents constantly in motion effecting all life on the remote strip of land.
Everything in the film is highly symbolic. Like many Ghibli films there is magical realism at play here. Dreams are an important part of the narrative, and they serve to offer us visual clues in the place of dialogue. It gives the movie that Ghibli flavor that hardcore fans will appreciate, but doesn’t trivialize or render the film juvenile. In fact it adds a needed look at the interior lives of the characters and gives us a thought provoking look at how this effects the world and beings outside their minds.
Don’t think this movie is without it’s tense moments. It is cerebral to be sure but not without excitement. Moments of conflict with the island’s geography and the forces of nature are reminiscent of the works of Jack London.
It might seem strange to say, but in a film with no dialogue the sound becomes even more important. The noise emanating from the wind, waves, and trees are exquisitely rendered here. They help immerse us totally in this island while the tremendous score deepens and amplifies an already emotional story. Add this to the dazzling but somewhat old school feeling animation, and we are left with a masterpiece of filmmaking.
Incredibly touching, beautiful, and a unique cinematic experience, “The Red Turtle” deserves recognition. I give the highest praise to director Michael Dudok De Wit. “Zootopia” might have been great, but this is something truly sublime. To fail to recognize it would be foolish and insulting.
It’s a better film on the cycle of life and death than “The Lion King”, every bit the cast away story that “Cast Away” is, perhaps as beautiful a love story as even “Moonlight”, and a classic no doubt matching any from Ghibli or dare I say any animated film. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, and even as I write now some of those moments are still with me. All I can tell you is it was a moving experience that provided me with lessons I can take with me for the rest of my life. Isn’t that everything a movie, indeed any artwork, should be?