Movie Review - The Red Turtle

This film was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 89th Academy Awards. It premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival where it won a prize. It won Best Animated Feature Independent at the Annie Awards. It was also recognized at the César Awards. It was directed and co-written by Michael Dudok de Wit, a Dutch animator who has been up for the Oscar twice before. He was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 67th and at the 73rd Academy Awards.

The opening is a person lost at sea, adrift with a storm on the horizon. It reminded me of the opening scene of the other animated feature nominated opposite this one, Kubo and the Two Strings. The film doesn't contain the eye-popping stop-motion of that Laika film. It's instead a French and Japanese co-production, so the animation looks like it's hand-drawn with pencils, befitting your typical Studio Ghibli style. Instead of an epic adventure as often is the case with Studio Ghibli, this movie is all about a man who gets stranded on a deserted island and either can't or won't leave it. There's really no action. Most of it is just the man living on the beach.

The first reel is pretty fascinating, as we watch this man try to survive on the island. He has various pitfalls while exploring it. Eventually, he's able to build a raft to try to escape the tiny island. Unfortunately, his raft keeps getting destroyed forcing him back to the shore and he can't figure out why.

This film was co-written by Pascale Ferran. Ferran is a filmmaker who won the César Award for Best Film ten years prior. A couple of years ago, she directed a film called Bird People, which was about a woman who transforms into a bird. That idea of a human becoming an animal and vice-versa is brought to this film.

What Bird People does is puts the audience in the woman's shoes and we get to experience her transformation and existence as that animal. This movie doesn't do that. In Bird People, we get to experience life, if briefly, as a bird flying through the air. This movie is not about a woman becoming a bird. It's about a woman becoming a turtle or rather a turtle becoming a woman. Yet, at no point does the film put us in her shoes to have us experience life as that animal, a turtle swimming through the sea.

I understand that the film is about the reverse. It's about her becoming a woman after being a turtle, but it would have been just as exciting to see her comment about life in the water. It didn't have to be through dialogue, but the filmmakers keep her and her perspective at a distance. Yes, the title of the movie would suggest that it's about the woman, but instead the movie is all about the man who is just a regular guy who can't transform into anything.

After a while, I thought the film was going to be like The Blue Lagoon (1980), which ironically was shot on Turtle Island in Fiji. However, The Blue Lagoon was about discovery, discovery of love, sexuality and even religion in a coming-of-age tale. Unfortunately, it's unclear what this movie is actually about because it's not really about discovery.

The man eventually makes the decision to stop trying to leave and he chooses to remain on the island with the woman forever. It reminded me of the episode of Quantum Leap in which Brooke Shields guest starred. Shields was the star of The Blue Lagoon and that episode in the fifth season was a riff on that stranded island story. Since this film has no dialogue, it's difficult to articulate why choosing to stay on the island is significant. It's difficult but not impossible. Because this film never does convey that significance, I never fully invested in the man's decision.

When it comes to movies about men who are stranded on an island who form relationships with unlikely beings on that island, Swiss Army Man, which also came out last year is a much better movie.

Rated PG for thematic elements and peril.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 20 mins.


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