Who can resist a good old "stranded on a desert island" tale, the standard allegory for our existential predicament?
Nearly a decade in the making, Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit has teamed up with the famed Japanese animation factory, Studio Ghibli to produce "The Red Turtle," a gorgeous, Oscar-nominated art/anime film, awash in pastel color, muted tones and line-drawn detail. The perspective emphasizes the smallness of man, the vastness of nature, the long shadow, panning from above.
It has a kind of lush minimalism, intentionally simple as if to underline child-like wonder and the invitation - no, demand - to posit meaning to its narrative struggle. There are soaring strings and a sweet soprano to score the flights and feints of birds and fish, but there are no words spoken, no dialogue to interrupt the mystic indulgence and pretension to fable. And from this laser-like focus on the style comes an element of audience fatigue, like an hour and a half working on The New Yorker cartoon captioning contest.
A man is drowning in a fierce storm and he washes ashore on a tropical island. He walks the beach and enters a dense bamboo forest. He forages for food, cries out in loneliness and rages at the heavens. There are small sand crabs as court jesters, sea birds and turtles. There are dangers along the way, dark pools to escape, endless sea and star vistas and ocean depths to contemplate.
He survives, embraces and becomes part of nature, but something vital is missing and he longs to escape. He builds a raft and sets sail into the unknown, only to be thwarted by a mysterious unseen force that destroys his raft. Again he tries, again he fails, and a huge red sea turtle appears, seeming only to prevent his escape without threatening his life.
There are fantasy elements - our Everyman has dreams and visions - a classical string quartet on the beach, a bridge of bamboo to civilization, the turtle itself - death and transfiguration from which comes his soulmate, woman born of loneliness and desire. Let's call her Eve, shall we? A silent woman, gift from God. He no longer wants to escape.
What follows are stations of humanity, seasons of love. There is family now, a new cycle; a child grows and time is compressed. No real dramatic arc , but there are new challenges, a terrifying tsunami in incredibly rendered animation, heroism, sacrifice and more delicate depictions of the mundane.
We are asked to embrace the parable, to take these silent figures as ourselves, insistent symbols of the universal. We are missing only Elton singing "The Circle of Life" and a complimentary copy of Siddhartha.
So maybe the film tries too hard, and makes you try to think too hard. But there is no doubt that it is a great achievement in the genre, and the ending is truly touching. You may well walk out with a tear to accompany that sigh of relief.
"The Red Turtle"
3 stars (out of 4)
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Running time: 80 minutes
Rated: PG for threats of nature
The lowdown: Animated feature about a man stranded on an island.