For “The Red Turtle,” Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit conjured up a romantic fantasy about a cast-away who angrily bludgeons and kills a red sea turtle, only to fall in love with the redheaded woman who pops out of the dead animal’s shell.
And the Japanese Studio Ghibli agreed to make it, because you have to be Japanese to find killing endangered sea life romantic.
That’s glib and culturally insensitive, sure. But this isn’t one of Ghibli’s better efforts, a lovely, wordless essay in silence and isolation with dream fugue sequences, almost no plot and a cryptic coda.
A fisherman is wrecked at sea during a gloriously animated storm. He washes up on a desert isle with only crabs, frogs and the occasional sea lion for company, and quickly resolves to turn the bamboo forest there into a raft. But every time he pushes off from shore, some unseen something thumps and thumps the raft to pieces.
He figures out it’s a sea turtle. And when she comes ashore he has his revenge. Sure, there’s remorse after he’s flipped her onto her back to let her die a slow, agonizing death. Too late, though.
Then the shell cracks open and speechless redhead emerges. They are meant to be and meant to mate. But where can this fairy tale go from there, and how will it end?
Ghibli’s animators render wind sweeping through bamboo in amazing detail. Crabs scuttle about, birds flock and soar and turtles wrestle themselves into and out of the water.The people, however, lack expressive “anime eyes” and are simply rendered.
Their watercolor palette begins with muted hue — fantastical dreams are rendered in black and white — and gains vibrancy as red characters show up and the film progresses.
Which it does. At a turtle’s pace.
There are incidents — near tragedies, a tsunami, family idylls. They’re spread sparingly over the 80 minute running time.
What’s missing is the magic, fantasy that feels fantastical, a moral to this parable.
Maybe that last element is there. Maybe not. The conclusion invites varying interpretations.
It’s all pretty enough, but this is lesser Ghibli, more a “Borrowers” than a “Ponyo,” an animated bauble as hollow as a turtle shell purse.
MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and peril
Credits:Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, script by Michael Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran. A Sony Pictures Classics/Studio Ghibli release.
Running time: 1:21