The Red Turtle Review: An Overstated Visual Feast

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Watching The Red Turtle is like walking through an art gallery that tells you a specific, linear story. Each and every frame of Studio Ghibli’s collaboration with French distributor Wild Bunch is like a living, breathing painting. Virtually devoid of dialogue, the film talks to you through its art. Sadly, it doesn’t have much to say, mostly due to director Michael Dudok de Wit’s heavy handed ambitions stretched over what should probably have been a short film.

Chronicling the survival story of a nameless man stranded on an island, The Red Turtle relies entirely on archetypal characters and simple situations. That’s fine. The man’s trials on the beach, complete with a few cute animated crabs, don’t necessarily define his character, but intend to define our species. It’s the sort of vague characterization that you typically see in animated shorts rather than feature-length films. At a mere 80 minutes, the film does somehow still find a way to feel long.

The gorgeous imagery carries us from scene to scene with an uneasy anticipation that doesn’t quite pay off thanks to the film’s overstated message. Despite only having three real main characters, death is all over The Red Turtle. We get our first glimpse after the man watches a bunch of baby sea turtles make their way to the ocean. The film eventually cuts to a dead one lying upside down. The shot lingers on its body for an uncomfortable amount of time before a crab comes and carries it off. This mechanism is used throughout the film, representing the circle of life and the world’s natural order.

The titular red turtle, which refuses to let the man leave the island, continually destroying his rafts, is meant to be a watcher, like a floating deity only meant to influence the world around it. Later turning into a woman to accompany the man, there are some lovely ideas at play here. But for its overly simple storytelling, the film tries to go deep and comes up dry. What’s disappointing is that it might not have if the runtime was slashed in half and some of the lesser ideas or more obvious points were discarded.  The Red Turtle is undeniably a joy to behold visually, and some of its story ideas do work, but there’s too much repetition and hand-holding that causes the film to bog itself down.  There’s a great 30 or 40 minute animated short in here, but its needless extension leaves a pretentious stain on the whole project. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

One Response to The Red Turtle Review: An Overstated Visual Feast

  1. Mulligan says:

    It’s about as beautifully simple and lithe as an epic visual feast can get, with Ghibli-esque themes about our spiritual connection to nature kept high in the mix, and an overarching bittersweetness that keeps the fantasy grounded in human emotion.

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