When was the last time an animated film actual lowered your pulse rate?
In its typical Hollywood form, an animated feature is usually the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush — a frantic barrage of colors and movement and jokes and sounds.
It's safe to say that "The Red Turtle," a fortuitous collaboration between Japan's famed Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator-director Michael Dudok de Wit, is very, very different. A fable, beautifully drawn in calm, soothing colors, it doesn't even have dialogue, let alone a throbbing soundtrack. Those sounds you hear are the sounds of silence, and eventually they become hypnotic.
As Dudok de Wit tells it, he received an email out of the blue in 2006 from the vaunted animation studio, asking if he'd be interested in working on his first feature (the director is known for his animated shorts.) He was, and he came up with the story of a man cast away on a deserted island.
The director's research took him to his own deserted island, in the Seychelles, where he shot thousands of photographs. He wanted to recreate the feeling of how time stands still in such a place. He spent nine years creating that animated world. And you can tell.
The film begins with a roiling sea. A man is lost in the waves; we don't know how he got there. Finally, he washes up on a tranquil island, inhabited seemingly only by a few friendly crabs on the beach.
Exploring the rocky cliffs, he slips and falls into a crevasse, and seems about to drown in the water below when he steels his nerves, dives deeper down, and finds a way out. Slowly, in this way, he learns how to cope with the forces of nature around him. And slowly we relax, too, into the rhythms of this natural world.
There are some lovely greens and blues and grays here, but unlike many animated films, the palette is limited and the colors fairly muted — as they are in life. It's beautiful, but we also know that the man — of course we don't know his name, or anything about him — aches to find a way back to civilization.
He builds an impressive raft and sets sail, only to have some unknown underwater force — could it be a shark? — destroy it and send him gasping to the shore. He rebuilds the raft and tries again, but the same force destroys it once more.
It turns out this is no shark, but a big, beautiful red turtle that is thwarting our man's dream of escape. But why? And how will this confrontation end?
It's tempting to continue recounting the plot here, but this is one of those films where the less you know beforehand, the better. Suffice it to say that as our main character learns to be patient with nature, we too sense the need to slow down and wait for our own gratification.
Of course nature can be terrifying, too, in sudden ways, and so another thing this expressive film manages to convey is how vulnerable man is to the caprices of nature. Finally, we're also asked to contemplate our attitudes toward death — but now we're really getting ahead of ourselves. No more plot revelations here, other than to say that the entire cycle of life is lovingly portrayed.
After watching "The Red Turtle," you might find yourself checking out flights to your own deserted island. Especially now, with so much turbulence in the headlines, you could do worse than submit to 80 minutes of watching crabs crawl in the sand and feeling some cool ocean breezes — if you pay close enough attention, you can actually sense them wafting through the screen.
"The Red Turtle," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America "for some thematic elements and peril." Running time: 80 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental Guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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