Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle is a movie I have no real qualms with. It’s sophisticated and elegant, and often gorgeous to look at. It’s also a movie that I just can’t get excited about, because there’s not a whole lot — from plot to depth — beneath that surface sheen of elegance. The film is more concerned about mood than anything else and if you’re able to give yourself up to it, there’s a lot to be taken from The Red Turtle. The problem for me is that I was never able to make that connection, either on an emotional nor aesthetic level, meaning that while I have no issues with Dudok de Wit’s film on paper, it’s not the type of movie I can wholeheartedly endorse for everyone. Connection is the key with any movie, but more so with The Red Turtle, since its aims aren’t simple entertainment.
The Red Turtle can best be described as a fable, a quiet and occasionally surreal (not to mention fabulist) view of life, love, family and aging. It could also be called a tone poem, which is one of those phony cinema descriptors that’s just a fancy way of saying nothing really happens. Much of the film is shaded in, both in mood and story, opening with an unnamed man washing up on a deserted island. Where he came from is never explained, though he’s ingenious enough to build a bamboo raft after inhabiting the island for a short time. The problem is, every time he tries to head to sea, his raft is destroyed by an unknown sea creature. After numerous failed attempts — and mounting frustration — the man discovers that he’s been attacked by a bright red and seemingly benevolent sea turtle.
The film takes slightly more imaginative and dreamlike turns from here, but never moves in a direction that’s too jarring. The Red Turtle is far too languid for that, though for all its inherent strangeness and occasional fantasy sequences, the film is too gentle to be out-and-out weird. It is a distinction (and this is probably where my own aesthetic tastes come into play) since everything on display here is easily explainable as metaphor. When the film makes no sense, or just throws something in there because it looks neat (the hallucinatory string quartet on the beach one night will stick with me, I feel), The Red Turtle can be a bit more interesting.
These are really minor quibbles, since this is a decidedly mature animated film (it is a Studio Ghibli film after all), one with a gorgeous hand drawn (though obviously computer aided) look, with characters that hearken back to Hergé’s Tintin. It’s just not a film that connected with me on any real personal level, an important factor for a movie that is pure feeling and aura. Again, there’s nothing really wrong with The Red Turtle, it’s just that if you’re more in tune with Dudok de Wit’s quiet style (both cinematically and as a storytelling mode) than me, there’s likely more reward than I personally found. Rated PG for some thematic elements and peril. Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.