Tuesday 30 May 2017

Desert island movie: "The Red Turtle"

At the time of its first screenings in Cannes last year, the castaway fable The Red Turtle was being floated as the final film to bear the Studio Ghibli imprimatur; as it finally lands on UK screens, we can rest easy, knowing that this is no longer the case. (By all accounts, Hayao Miyazaki has changed his mind on retirement and returned to his drawing board: le vent se lève, il faut tenter de vivre.) If anything, the film has the look of a formerly closed shop opening its doors and then its mind to the idea of cross-pollination. Under the auspices of Dutch-born, British-based animator Michael Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle marks a break from recent Ghibli tradition in several respects. Its animation style, for one, is not just less florid, but sparser, grainier, more individualistic; as befits what is at heart a tale of isolation, the frame is emptier than it ever was in Spirited Away or Ponyo, the imagination channelled somewhat differently. Although de Wit shares Miyazaki's enduring fascination with the elements, rarely can a Ghibli film have appeared this elemental.

This, it transpires, is the other crucial difference: de Wit favours a form of storytelling so stripped down and pared back as to invite allegorical reading. Here is a man (credited only as The Father) left living and working in isolation on a desert island after his craft is destroyed during a storm; his attempts to float himself back out into the world will be continually stymied by the creature enshrined in the title, a russet-hued reptile who initially presents as an obstacle, but will eventually prove key to his future happiness. The Father is a tiny figure, most often viewed in longshot, his eyes mere currants rather than the usual anime saucers. (He is of a genus closer to Tintin than Totoro.) In his solitary labours - chiefly the lashing together of tree branches into an escape raft - he could be seen as an analogue of the artisanal animator, whittling down his own HBs. Yet he's also been characterised as rather self-absorbed - impulsive and restless, driven to bludgeon the turtle after one failed escape bid - who must learn how to co-exist with the world around him.

In this respect, The Red Turtle is very Ghibli, yet we should also note another influence: that of de Wit's co-writer Pascale Ferran, who gave us 2006's lush Lady Chatterley adaptation. The palette, however, is all de Wit's: the green of the forest where the castaway finds the wood for his raft, the burnished yellow of the shores he comes to collapse upon in despair, fading to black and white as the sun goes down or the protagonist enters a dreamspace. We're headed towards an anthropomorphic twist that recalls Hans Christian Andersen (source, lest we forget, of Ponyo), yet the second half most reminded me of certain countercultural animations from the 1960s and 70s: it wouldn't surprise me if very young viewers were a little bemused by events, and equally if the film attracted a crowd of stoners with their own theories on what it ultimately all means. It may, I suspect, be rather more conventional than that demographic would insist - something along the lines of last year's Raymond Briggs adaptation Ethel & Ernest, relocated to an uncommonly exotic backdrop.

That's not to say, however, that it isn't transporting and finally very moving in its description of how time passes and things change. It's the starkness of this description that is most striking, and bold with it. Other desert-island movies - whether Castaway or Cast Away - have found devices via which their protagonists can keep up a dialogue of sorts, but de Wit is clearly of the school that maintains that if your images are indelible enough, you don't or won't need to explain yourself. There's a sparing score (by Laurent Perez del Mar), but for the most part we're left, like this latter-day Robinson Crusoe, to listen to the birds in the trees, the crickets in the long grass, and the waves lapping rhythmically upon the shore. It's opening here in time for the school holidays, alongside a computer animation titled Spark: A Space Tail (primates in space); something tells me de Wit's film contains more artistry in a single frame than the other movie has in its entire ninety minutes.

The Red Turtle is now playing in selected cinemas.

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