When a Man Loves a Turtle
The half-term school holiday has just been upon us here in the UK, with the attendant jostling for space by films eager to snap up all that extra potential trade. Pole position was naturally held by the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but I note that Warner Brothers wheeled out Wonder Woman in order to take advantage of the last few days of the week. And, of course, there was the potential for counter-programming, which as far as family films go means smaller, quieter, more reserved fare, not backed by major corporations or fast-food tie-ins, films which the most bien-pensant sandal-wearing parents can take their tinies to see, even if those tinies are as yet too young to even understand a phrase as simple as 'Stop kicking the back of my seat,' even when it is said to them many, many times.
Doing quite well in my neck of the woods with this cute-but-exasperating crowd is Michael Dudok de Wit's The Red Turtle, which is an animated Belgian-Japanese co-production (yes, I know what you're thinking: oh no, not another one). The size and prominence of The Red Turtle's release is almost certainly due to the fact that the Japanese end of the deal is being handled by the legendary Studio Ghibli, beloved by art-house cinema proprietors up and down the country.
I have to say that for an organisation which announced it was ceasing operations nearly three years ago, Studio Ghibli is still cranking out movies with impressive frequency (although I understand this may be due to reports of Hayao Miyazaki's retirement proving to be exaggerated). Apparently, in this case, it was the Ghibli team who sought out Dudok de Wit with a view to collaborating, Miyazaki himself being impressed by one of his short films. Now that's what I call getting the nod.
The Red Turtle is another one of those films seeking to get round the obstacle of not being made in English by not bothering to include any dialogue whatsoever – known in these parts as the boom-bang-a-bang theory of international cinema. The story, naturally enough, is a relatively simple one: the movie opens with a spectacular storm out at sea, at the heart of which a castaway is struggling to survive. Survive he does, and pitches up on a reasonably well-appointed desert island.
Having explored his new home and collected himself, the man decides to take his chances on a bid to return to civilisation, and builds himself a raft. However, shortly after leaving the island, he finds his fragile vessel deliberately smashed to pieces by an unseen force. This happens repeatedly, and our hero eventually discovers that the culprit is a large turtle of an unusual crimson hue. Angry and frustrated, the man returns to the island, and when one day he happens upon the turtle making its laborious way up the beach, he decides to eliminate the vindictive beast and the menace it poses to his liberty…
Now, here the story takes a rather startling and unpredictable left turn – unpredictable to anyone who isn't a dyed in the wool fan of Ghibli movies, anyway. A lot of Ghibli movies look a bit trippy, in their own gorgeous way, but what it's easy to forget is just how weird the stories virtually always are. Never mind being forced to work in a sauna for ghosts, there are films about juvenile starvation, aviation design, odd things you find in bamboo, potential cases of sibling genetic attraction syndrome, family ghost stories: the list goes on and on. Despite the fact it's a co-production, the story of The Red Turtle stays proudly true to its Ghibli heritage by suddenly becoming exceedingly odd: the man and the turtle fall in love with each other.
This is not a euphemism or a metaphor or anything like that: the man and the turtle end up having a baby together (this sequence is quite delicately handled by the animators, thank God) – suffice to say the manly charms of our hero are sufficient to bring the turtle out of her shell (thanks everybody, I'm here all week). What can I say? I thought Gamera: Incomplete Struggle was the weirdest Japanese movie about a turtle with unusual faculties that I was ever likely to see, but of course I had reckoned without the supreme eccentricity of the Studio Ghibli script department.
Well, the story may be rather bizarre (and then some), but this is still a stunningly beautiful piece of animation. Quite what the Belgian creators are bringing to the mix is a little unclear – although I have to say all the human characters do look rather like Tintin the boy reporter – as this looks very much like any other Ghibli production you care to mention, incredibly naturalistic but also extremely beautiful and effortlessly charming (there are some very endearing crabs in this movie).
This is not some anthropomorphic fantasy, but a more measured piece about – I expect – the circle of life and the place of humanity in the world. There's also a bit where someone nearly throws up while skinning a seal, which you don't get in your typical Pixar movie. Does the story seem deceptively simple or is this just one of those movies which is operating on a number of levels? I'm not completely sure, but while I did find the story perhaps just a touch underpowered and by no means under-length at only 81 minutes, I found it very pleasant to watch throughout (once I'd recovered from how barking mad the central conceit is).
I suppose that in the end The Red Turtle is indeed a film which is a metaphor about life. You try to find your way through the turbulence of the world, perhaps a little haphazardly, and then you meet someone. You may not initially appreciate the connection you have with them. You may indeed find yourself moved to try and brain them with a chunk of wood and turn them into soup. But then the realisation dawns that you share a special bond, and one day the two of you slope off to some sleepy lagoon somewhere to fertilise some eggs together. It's the story H.P. Lovecraft would have written had he ever tried his hand at romantic fiction. Or maybe it's just a metaphor suggesting that age-gap relationships can work out after all (turtles can live for over a century, after all). I'm not completely sure. This is an odd little film, but a superbly made and very relaxing one to watch.