The Red Turtle Cannes review: Studio Ghibli makes a stylish return

Nerve-wrecking action and a castaway story make for a thrilling, fresh creation

The Red Turtle
    
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Cert: Club
Genre: Animation
Starring: N/A
Running Time: 1 hr 20 mins

Michael Dudok de Wit is a Dutch, London-based animator who, to date, has won an Oscar, a Bafta and the Annecy Grand Prix for short films on unlikely subjects, such as mourning and the aroma of tea. He had no plans to make a feature-length animation until Studio Ghibli called. The Japanese imprint has officially been "on pause" since the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki (the great artist behind such classic pictures as My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away). Yet unbeknown to avid Ghibli watchers, Michael Dudok de Wit has been beavering away on this splendidly singular adventure for almost a decade.

The Red Turtle opens with a battle in the high seas as the film's hero swims for his life in crashing waves. He awakens on an island with only crabs for company (who knew that scuttling could be mined so effectively for laughs?). Hallucinations of a bridge and a string quartet hint at his previous life. He immediately sets about building a boat. His impressive survival skills are repeatedly thwarted by something lurking in the waters just beyond the shores.

So far, so Robinson Crusoe. Yet the story soon takes a folkloric turn when the castaway encounters the titular testudine, a creature that turns out to be a woman. Dudok de Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran’s deft creation gives the impression this plot point must have been inspired by an ancient woodcutting or a companion piece for Thumbelina.

But no. Another swerve: the director, whose Oscar-winning Father and Daughter (2000) illustrated how mourning a parent is a life-long process, uses this lovely shipwrecked fable to explore what it is to be a family.


The hugeness of this inquiry is hidden by the simplicity of the presentation. This doesn’t look like any other Ghibli film. The characters’ eyes have more in common with Herge’s Tintin than with the expressive saucers of Miyazaki’s heroines. The island’s unnamed, mute inhabitants are frequently dwarfed by their landscape, which is rendered in muted colours.

Unlikely as it sounds, this strangely compelling allegory is punctuated by nerve-wrecking action scenes, as the survivors battle against elements and circumstance.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic