Let's get the Oscar talk out of the way. The Red Turtle was nominated for Best Animated Feature by the Academy this year. Its chances of winning are slim. As usual, this has little to do with the film's quality and more with its relative obscurity compared to box office giants Moana and Zootopia. This review will speculate no more on the awards prospects of this movie.
Ever since Hayao Miyazaki officially retired from the business of directing movies, I have nursed a low-level paranoia that we will never see a filmmaker with his specific aesthetic of quietly beautiful whimsy, often belying a profound message. He and his peer, Isao Takahata, are titans of Japanese animation and beyond, but they are getting old, and the creation of making hand-drawn animated films is exhausting.
Luckily, we have filmmakers like Michael Dudok de Wit to carry on their work. His newest film, The Red Turtle, has a similarly Zen Buddhist attitude towards the natural world as Miyazaki, while also including plenty of harsh real-world reality that is the hallmark of Takahata. His art style is not that of Japanese animation, but is more easily compared to the character design of Herge, of Tintin fame. Despite all of these clear influences, the film feels unique in its sensibility, more elliptical and mysterious than we've come to expect even from Studio Ghibli, the film's production company.
Its plot is simple: a castaway attempts to escape a desert island until he encounters a woman, with whom he eventually has a son. We watch the trio as they progress through various stages of their lives. Like the other films in the Ghibli canon, there is little in the way of an overarching plot. There are no villains and there is little incident. What we have instead are details that give the film flavor, like the pillow shots so beloved by Japanese auteur, Yasujiro Ozu.
For example, the castaway shares the island with crabs, who act as sort of a Greek chorus. They mostly behave like crabs, approaching the man when he appears to have food, but in one moment that felt like vintage Miyazaki, the man ferries palm leaves back and forth to the beach; one of the crabs imitates him with a small leaf, another hapless crustacean hopelessly pursuing it. These crabs aren't exactly anthropomorphized--they appear like the animals they are, and at least one is mercilessly snatched up by a seagull--but their behavior reminded me distinctly of the balls of soot from Spirited Away, who imitate Chihiro's rescue of Haku.
The film's more transcendental elements coincide with the appearance of the eponymous turtle. I don't want to get into exactly what happens, because it was a delightful yet unsettling surprise to me, but that reptile figures prominently in the film, both concerning the story and the theme. It's easy to assign Judeo-Christian associations to a film that is about a man and a woman living in (comparative) paradise together, but I don't think that's what de Wit is going for. The film is about the world's tendency towards cruelty, and how people are susceptible to adopting that sort of fierceness in their own behavior towards one another. But it's also about love, death and accepting your fate: suffice it to say that the castaway doesn't show up at Helen Hunt's door with a FedEx package at the end.
Movies this quiet and lovely are bound to be buried, particularly when its genre is characterized by noisy, witless nonsense in the unfounded belief that children require constant stimulation in order to be diverted. Some movies function well as cinematic meditation; the aforementioned Ozu often served this purpose better than anyone else. de Wit, a Dutchman, has picked up the slack superbly.