Movie Review: The Red Turtle

“There is a calmness to a life lived in gratitude, a quiet joy.” ― Ralph H. Blum

Have you ever seen those videos where a camera pulls out from a person, expanding to view the whole house, town, city, country, then earth, solar system, galaxy, universe – creating a sense of human smallness and powerlessness? The Red Turtle evokes similar feelings. This film is a contrast to Moana, which also began on an island in the sea. Moana played into popular notions that home, our comfort zone, is also restrictive. The Red Turtle wonders, what if we stay, and find out what home could be? In both films, the protagonists desire to venture away from their island, to go where they believe they should be. For Moana, the ocean (a personified watery appendage in her case) supports her cause, encouraging her, and she leaves for her destiny. But in The Red Turtle, the ocean adheres to a more painful atheistic reality, where the ocean, a powerful force nonetheless, is ultimately inorganic, beautiful, but unknowingly cruel at times. A raging storm at sea first brings our nameless Red Turtle protagonist to the island, and a mysterious entity prevents him from leaving again and again. Even as the man and the family he finds later become familiar and comfortable with an oceanic life, the ocean continues to exhibit its directionless, unintended cruelty to man.

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However, this sombre interpretation is not necessarily the one that is first gleaned from the surface. The first impression on the viewer is the beautiful animation depicting a lush tropical island teeming with life – crabs, seals, a bamboo forest, with fruits and fresh water inland. This is thankfully not a desert island, and our man is not likely to starve. However, the island could serve as a metaphor, a question about whether one should stay in a dissatisfied yet sufficient place in life. The man’s first impulse is to leave, to not be where he is right now, but later that impulse softens, until he quietly accepts where he is, and finds a simple joy in the island life. It’s not too bad here, you can hear him thinking after a while.

The man’s emotional turmoil can only be imagined and deduced from his actions, body language, and facial expressions, which the panoply of studios involved manage to convey adeptly. Though largely bereft of dialogue, the characters are not mute; they shout, laugh, and cry. Without language or exposition to drive the plot, the sounds of nature, of life, of death, are clearly heard in sometimes heartbreaking detail.

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I’ve made the Red Turtle sound like a sad movie so far, but it really isn’t. It depends on your frame of mind when you walk into the theatre. If you’re feeling nihilistic, the film could make you ponder the wonderful meaninglessness of life. If you’re in a biophilic mood, the depictions of nature will awe you. Flying seagulls and albatrosses, newborn turtles waddling from the beach to the sea, where the adult turtles swim with elegance and grace — the nature in the film can feel almost documentarian. Of special mention are the crabs in the microcosm of the beach, funny creatures that often elicited a laugh or two.

The Red Turtle shows that a strong movie does not necessarily need a strong plot. It is a film showcasing the lived experience that explores the fundamental interaction of humanity and nature. Go in for the sharp and defined bandes-dessinees animation; leave with a quiet joy in appreciation of life.

In Singapore, The Red Turtle is currently showing at The Projector.

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