Choppy, monochrome seas fill the opening frames of The Red Turtle, a man appearing on the surface of the water before being dragged down into its depths by an angry storm. It’s over in a mere matter of minutes, but enraptures you with such tension that it feels as though it lasts for an unnerving lifetime, reminding us of Studio Ghibli’s indelibly powerful set pieces. Like, for example, the air raids over war era Japan in Grave of the Fireflies, or the imminent arrival of a huge, sludgy spirit in the bathhouses of Spirited Away.
Unlike those films, The Red Turtle isn’t crafted by Ghibli’s own tight-knit team but by Michael Dudok de Wit, a Dutch animator whose lauded short films were admired by the company. Eight years ago, de Wit visited the studio and met with its iconic helmer Hayao Miyazaki, who expressed his rare wishes to collaborate. Now in 2016, the iconic Totoro logo that precedes all of their work, usually painted on to sky blue, appears on a deep shade of red. This, my friends, is the first of hopefully many Studio Ghibli co-productions.
After that stunning opening sequence, we find ourselves on a ‘Castaway’-style spot in the middle of a vast ocean, engulfed by rainforest and encountering sweet, seaside critters. The beating sun has come out, and our nameless protagonist is lying dry-mouthed and weary on the beach. We watch as he builds raft after raft, setting out to sea but failing to get far enough to find help. One encounter leads him into the gorgeous gaze of a gargantuan red sea turtle, which the man punishes for thwarting his escape efforts. It turns out to be the dreamy, red-haired woman he’s been searching for; the pair falling in love on an animated landscape only Ghibli could play a part in creating.
The Red Turtle transports us to an environment that’s not necessarily inspired but carries a ravishing, tropical glow. Clocking in just a few moments shy of 90 minutes, de Wit demands nothing from his viewers bar their willingness to sink into his dream-like parable of a film. Blessed with a pleasant, non-preachy environmentalist touch, de Wit harks back to his producer’s tendency to make gorgeous cinema with an important message.
Unsurprisingly, The Red Turtle is up to Ghibli’s charming standard. Awash with beautiful animation and brimming with honest, simple character, it manages to surpass the quality of the studio’s most recent works, making this a masterful, meticulously made shoe in for the year’s best animated film.
The Red Turtle premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the 69th Festival de Cannes