From the Disney classics of my childhood to the banal but charming nonsense my two-year-old son likes to gawp at on the telly, I have always been a devotee of cartoons. In this regard, the recent history of cinema has been good to me. We’ve been living through a golden age of animated film. Pixar, of course, takes much of the credit, but there has also been a run of cartoon features aimed squarely at grown-up audiences, the best of which have provided some of the most enjoyable cinema experiences of my adult life. They include Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis and Sylvain Chomet’s stunning double, Belleville Rendez-vous and The Illusionist. The Red Turtle is another film to add to that exalted list.
This co-production is between Wild Bunch and Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio that can lay claim to being Pixar’s only major rival in terms of the quality and quantity of its artistic output. Both Pixar and Ghibli specialise in making films that appeal to children and their parents at the same time. Unlike its American counterpart, though, Ghibli has not been afraid to create cartoons appealing solely to adult audiences. While this latest effort, directed and co-written by Michaël Dudok de Wit, may find favour among some older children, you’d be hard pushed to describe it as a family movie. It’s too cerebral and strange for that.
The story begins as a straightforward Robinson Crusoe-like tale of a man washed up on a desert island. After a heart-stopping sequence in which he plunges from a cliff’s edge, our bedraggled hero builds a raft and tries to escape the island. Not far from the shore, his creaky vessel is crashed into by an unseen force, causing the raft to break up and the man to be dumped back on the island by the waves.
Beckett-like, this sequence repeats itself until he eventually discovers that a huge red turtle is the saboteur frustrating his attempts to leave. To say more about how the plot unfolds from here would be to ruin the off-kilter surprises that lie in wait. Like Chomet’s work, The Red Turtle is wordless – a form that also calls to mind the television version of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman. It shares with these precursors an air of melancholia that is deeply affecting.
This is an apparently simple little film which, thanks to its dream-like narrative twists, contains great depths. It’s both a bizarre fairy tale and a very human drama. It’s also a hymn to the vulnerability of the natural world and a meditation on love, family and the fleeting nature of the time we get to share with the people closest to us. As I’ve said, I’m a sucker for a cartoon, particularly one as elegant and elegiac as this.
The Red Turtle (Cert PG, 81 mins, ★★★★)
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