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.