On visual efficiency, the narrative crutches of animated films, and the overextended poetry of The Red Turtle
The Red Turtle Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Screenplay: Michael Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran
Rated PG / 1 hour, 20 minutes / 1.85:1
(out of four)
Animation is, in many ways, the most efficient cinematic format. It almost has to be. With every detail of every frame being created* by hand (more or less), decided upon, put in place - nothing captured by accident - there's no time to waste on extraneous scenes, or conversations that go on for too long, or meaningless images. There's a premium on getting as much out of every shot as possible, and the best animated films do so with an invisible grace.
* Stop-motion and hand-drawn are especially painstaking, but this still holds for computer animation, which has a broader technological canvas and every bit the visual responsibility, even if many computer-animated films and studios don't really take advantage, or express much beyond the basics the story requires. *cough * Blue Sky Illumination DreamWorks * cough *
This time of year gives us a sort of object lesson in this efficiency, when the Oscar-nominated shorts programs hit theatres around the country. The animated program is consistently superior to its live-action counterpart; this holds true most years. And what we see so often is animated shorts that feel entirely complete - feel like full-bodied stories, or ideas, or experiments - at lengths of 7 minutes, 12 minutes, 4 minutes, 18 minutes, what have you. More often than not, these shorts are mostly - if not entirely - wordless, getting everything across through their visual and aural compositions. Meanwhile, the live-action shorts often suffer from the same thing: Even at 20 or 30 minutes, they tell stories that feel conspicuously lightweight, incomplete, half-assed.
Which brings me to the strange conundrum of The Red Turtle, a beautiful hand-drawn 80-minute film that should have been a 30-minute short. If it were, I might have adored it. But at feature length, it outlives its effectiveness. It's unsurprising - and then, strangely, surprising as a result - to realize that director Michael Dudok de Wit's career has been in short films. The grand total of the four shorts he directed - over the course of 14 years - was 20 minutes. In other words, he quadruples his lifetime screen output with The Red Turtle, his debut feature. Which I wouldn't even mention if the film didn't take so long to ultimately get across so little. The problem comes into focus over the second half of the film, which by and large fails to illuminate or expand on the ideas introduced in the first half.
Now, the issue there dovetails with a whole other problem; and for us to get into detail, you'll have to forgive the ensuing rote plot description. A man is stranded on a desert island. He wakes up alone on the beach. He forages for food and water, he looks around the island for any other sign of life or civilization. He grows a beard, builds a raft, and that raft is mysteriously - but deliberately - destroyed in the middle of the sea. The man swims back, builds another one, same result. The saboteur was none other than a giant red turtle, its presence calm and soothing despite the fact that it seems intent on preventing this poor guy from ever getting off the island.
Or maybe the turtle knows something the man doesn't. In any case, the turtle eventually makes it to the shore, dies, and transforms into a beautiful woman that will become the man's lifetime companion.
(If you think about the turtle's actions too much - which I do not recommend - it seems not all that dissimilar to Passengers, except not so passive-aggressive. And not so literal.)
Once the mystery of the man's situation and the nature of the turtle are resolved, the lives of the characters play out exactly as this type of scenario always does, and exactly as we expect it to. Boy meets girl, they get together, they have a kid, kid grows up. Situations that the man experienced on the island repeat themselves as the child matures. Et cetera. This is another example of an irksome trend within animation. The narrative ideas that drive these movies can get frustratingly stale. They lean on boy-meets-girl (and, as often as not, boy-and-girl-have-a-baby) as a crutch. Boy umbrella falls for girl umbrella. Boy volcano falls for girl volcano. Boy office worker falls for girl office worker. Nothing is intrinsically interesting about that story. Cycle-of-life universality is one thing; redundancy is another.
The Red Turtle takes a wonderfully enigmatic path to arrive at the same eventuality. But once she transforms and things are set in motion, Dudok de Wit gives us a story that's all too typical. Life happens, and it's exactly the same version of life that a billion other movies have given us, and he feels the need to spend 40 minutes showing it to us. We do not see a life lived, we see a life reiterated. There is one thrilling sequence in the film's back half that upends the order of things, but even then, the story finds a way to settle right back into the same groove. If this is all the movie intended to offer us, and this was really the endgame, forget 30 minutes, the right filmmaker could've turned this into a marvelous ten-minute short. But now I'm just being recklessly hypothetical; don't mind me.
It's possible that the film winds up disheartening because its early sequences are so good. Dudok de Wit paints in evocative monochromes - the dusty green of the bamboo forest, the grey of the moonlit nights - in which the man practically disappears into his surroundings, becomes a part of it. And of the story itself, it's more absorbing when you consider the more religious angle it seems to have in mind. When the turtle dies, for example - turned over on its back, its flippers outstretched on either side - we see a dream sequence in which its soul rises out of its body and floats into the sky. Not long afterward, it is resurrected, albeit in a different form. And the woman, in that form, is ultimately the man's savior. I'm not especially theologically fluent, so there may be more (or less) to it than that. But even with that in mind, that allegory, too, becomes vastly less interesting as the film moves along. Once we settle into a routine, The Red Turtle itself becomes routine.