Looking back over the animated releases of last year, we find mostly popular fare as usual. We find big films like “Finding Dory,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and “Zootopia,” which walked away with the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. However, also included in the category was a much smaller film that, while critically-acclaimed and nominated in multiple places for the same award, most people had never even heard of when it earned its Oscar nod. This film was “The Red Turtle,” a French-made and Studio Ghibli-produced gem that flew far under the radar when it came to not only the public, but also award voters. Suffice it to say that if more Academy members had bothered to see it, then there would have been a much different result the night of the ceremony.
The film tells the deceptively simple tale of a man washed up on a deserted island after being caught in a storm in a small rowboat. He makes several efforts to get off the island by building a raft, but each time he tries to sail away, something in the water breaks it apart. He eventually discovers that the culprit is a massive red turtle that apparently wants to keep him on the island for some reason. When he finds the turtle on the beach one day, the man flips it over so that it’s unable to move, essentially leaving it to dry out in the hot sun. However, instead of the creature dying, it transforms into a woman and begins a special relationship with the man. From here, we witness moments of their time together, from the happiest of times with their son to an event that could mean the end of their lives together.
When discussing Michael Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle,” deceptive is probably the best word to describe it. On the outset, you think you’re going to get a simple survival tale where a man becomes trapped on a small island and tries to escape, but as you get deeper into the narrative, you discover that there’s so much more to see. This is a film that encompasses life itself, beautifully capturing the essence of the cycle and delving into the wondrous simplicity of existence on this unknown island, all without the use of any dialogue. We don’t know the location of the island, when it’s supposed to take place, or where the man is originally from, but these are things we just don’t need to know because of the universal nature of the story.
Unlike the other animated films that were offered up last year, this is not exactly an action-driven narrative. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and yet it ends up being so utterly compelling for its brief 81-minute runtime that you won’t believe it when the credits already begin to roll. Credit must be given where it’s due, for somehow De Wit and his crew make you care for these three characters without a single word, eliciting compassion, understanding, and a genuine yearning for their well-being through their familial bonds and unwavering love. It’s the kind of film where you can easily picture yourself in the same situation (pointing back to the narrative’s universal nature), which only serves to make it feel more real and truthful.
Of course, there’s the stunning animation that has to be mentioned as well. It’s a mixture of hand-drawn pieces and computer-generated elements that results in a gorgeous-looking film. The colors of this tropical paradise are so alive and vibrant that if the story isn’t keeping your eyes glued to the screen, then the exquisitely-rendered artwork will most certainly do the job. Without dialogue, the animation became an even more important element than usual, especially since much of the characters’ development throughout the film is based solely on body language, but De Wit and his team were more than up to the task, giving the characters a natural, organic feel that provides the audience one of several ways to form a connection.
What we’re left with is not just the best animated film of 2016, but one of the best animated films of the last several years. It really is a pleasant surprise when filmmakers attempt to delve deeper using animation as their vehicle, for it really can result in something profound, magical, and unforgettable (Pixar’s “Inside Out” springs to mind as being in the same group). Studio Ghibli may have only produced this time around, but it feels very much in the same vein as some of their masterworks (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away,” etc.). “The Red Turtle” is one of those rare animated films that goes above and beyond, one that dares to say more than typical films of the genre. It’s quite simply a powerful piece of work and should be sought out by all those who want a little something more in their animated selections.
“The Red Turtle” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.85.1, 1080p High Definition transfer of stunning quality. Every frame of De Wit’s animated opus is beautifully sharp and clear, allowing the rich, vibrant colors of the animation to shine throughout the entire 81-minute presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the score and sound effects in excellent quality. Overall, there’s not a single complaint to be had, leaving you with a magnificent home release of this animated marvel.
Commentary with Michael Dudok de Wit: An excellent commentary track that has the writer/director delving into some fascinating behind the scenes info about the film.
The Birth of The Red Turtle (57 Minutes): A fantastic featurette that explores the development of the film through various pieces of artwork.
The Secrets of The Red Turtle (18 Minutes): A featurette that has De Wit taking you through how to draw certain elements from the film.
The Red Turtle at AFI Fest Q&A (21 Minutes): A wonderful Q&A with De Wit that has him discussing topics including how the film came about.
Michael Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle” is a deceptively simple tale that ends up being so much deeper than it originally seems. Told through gorgeous animation, this is a film that marvelously encompasses life itself, resulting in not just the best animated film of last year, but one of the best of the last several years. It’s a terrible shame that the film was only given a limited release, for it’s one that should be seen by all who appreciate the depths that animated films can reach when filmmakers of the genre are willing to go above and beyond. With its release on Blu-ray and DVD, hopefully it will reach more people and finally get the attention it deserves.