For a studio that recently seemed on the brink of shutting down, Japan’s Studio Ghibli has stayed busy. Best known for a string of animated classics that includes My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, the Japanese company’s future has been the subject of speculation since co-founder and guiding force Hayao Miyazaki announced his intent to retire from making feature films in 2013. He’s since announced his intention to walk that retirement back but the studio has stayed busy without him. Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki’s Ronia The Robber’s Daughter, a 26-episode series, will soon debut on Amazon. And, beginning this week, The Red Turtle will begin rolling out in American theaters after playing Europe and Asia to considerable acclaim last year. It’s not hard to see what the fuss has been about.
It’s an unusual project for Studio Ghibli, primarily because it’s the company’s first to look abroad, rather than in-house, for directing talent. The film is helmed by Michaël Dudok de Wit, a 63-year-old Dutch director making his feature debut after a distinguished career making shorts. One of those, “Father and Daughter,” won an Oscar in 2001, and impressed Miyazaki enough to seek out its directors. Over a decade later, this is the result and it’s as visually stunning as anything Studio Ghibli has produced, even if it doesn’t look or feel much like a Studio Ghibli film. That’s not a knock against it, however. In fact, it doesn’t look or feel much like most animated films from any studio.
Co-written by Pascale Ferran (Bird People), The Red Turtle begins as a simple tale of survival. After a violent storm — the first but not the last of the film’s remarkable depictions of nature — an unnamed man washes up on a desert island. Things could be worse: It’s a place of tremendous beauty, and one filled with ready supplies of fruit and even some cute crabs to keep the man company. That doesn’t mean he wants to stay, however. So he sets about making a raft, only to have it destroyed by an unseen force just as he seems on the verge of successfully escaping the island. Undaunted, he makes another, bigger raft. And when that fails, yet another.
When, on the third try, he finally sees the face of his antagonist, it’s not what he could have expected. Staring at him from beneath the waves is a giant, beautiful, red sea turtle whose expression seems to wish him no harm but who sets about destroying his raft again anyway. Later, when he sees the turtle come ashore, the man takes out his raft on the beast, hitting it on the head, turning it on its back, and leaving it die. Filled with regret in the hours that follow, he returns to examine the turtle’s corpse.
From there, the film takes a turn that’s best not spoiled. The survival tale gives way to a fable-like story that then becomes a lovely, bittersweet depiction of how one generation gives way to make room for the next. All the while, Dudok de Wit summons up one unforgettable image after another, letting the island’s forest and the sea around it dwarf the man, emphasizing the difficulty of his attempts to tame it, and suggesting that controlling the natural world may be beyond his abilities before ultimately suggesting that submitting to nature’s will might not be such an awful fate.
The film also features as many heart-in-throat moments of suspense as the best action blockbusters and a powerful emotional pull. Whether offering a scene of the protagonists getting stuck between two rocks while diving underwater or contemplating the consequences of killing such a beautiful creature as the red turtle, Dudok de Wit makes every scene gripping. It also doubles as an example of the universal power of visual storytelling: Apart from a handful of shouted exclamations, The Red Turtle has no dialogue, letting images, sound effects, and a lovely score by Laurent Perez del Mar carry the weight of a tale that needs no words. What begins as story of man versus nature transforms into one in which such conflicts stop making sense. Whatever plans we make, time and life have other plans for us all.