The Red Turtle: a pretty and glossy package with a conservative and banal message

Michaël Dudok de Wiet, “The Red Turtle” (2016)

God save us all from pretty packages with lots of high gloss finish and finicky attention to detail that ultimately reveal very little of substance to sustain for a long time. The latest such trinket is Michaël Dudok de Wiet’s animated film “The Red Turtle” which he wrote and directed with the support of Studio Ghibli and French-German distributor Wild Bunch. The film wears its influences openly: the background animation reflects the high level of technical care and attention that Studio Ghibli gives to the appearance of its films while the film’s characters show a French influence in their simple features that emphasise their generic nature.

The plot is simple and vague enough as to form a parable of sorts. A man is lost at sea during a storm and washes up on a remote island somewhere in a vast ocean. He attempts to leave the island by building a raft out of bamboo trees he finds on the island at least three times and each time he is thwarted by a force that smashes the raft’s logs from below once out at sea. This strange force turns out to be a red turtle which incurs the castaway’s wrath. The turtle climbs out of the water onto the island beach, at which point the angry castaway overturns the animal onto its back, leaving it helpless and exposed to dehydrating heat. The creature dies and the castaway, overcome with remorse, covers it in bamboo branches and leaves.

The dead animal transforms into a woman and from then on the pair find love and play happy family, bringing up a son to adulthood. The trio appear to encounter very few problems during the long years they have together, the biggest being a giant tsunami that engulfs the island and leaves it completely devastated.

Problems abound with the film’s paper-sliver thin narrative and the message it is trying to tell. Everything is so generic – even the island is generic (we can’t even tell if the island is a tropical one or one in a more temperate climate zone) – that audiences will have a hard time identifying with the characters and their issues. The island itself could have been a significant character in testing the castaway’s resilience, moral and spiritual as well as physical, and in helping him to learn something about himself. Unfortunately the island setting and its inhabitants remain passive players in the entire movie. The turtle woman is hardly more active than the island: she merely plays a stereotypical good wife to the castaway. If she teaches him anything about how to accept his fate and how to live in harmony and peace with nature and to find his niche in the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, none of this is made obvious to viewers who have to infer all these notions for themselves.

The view of woman as being at one with nature, represented by the ease with which the turtle woman emerges from her carapace in human form and returns to her original form decades later, is a tired stereotype that should have been consigned to the dust-bin decades ago. It is a dangerous and demeaning stereotype that denies women their intelligence, qualities and distinctiveness as individuals, and puts men in opposition to nature from the moment of their birth: a deterministic and narrow view of humans that takes gender for granted instead of treating it as a cultural construct. At the end of the film, all that the castaway has learned from his island experiences is that his role in life is to find a wife, raise a family and let his son go out into the world to repeat the same banal cycle.

Ultimately the film carries a very conservative and depressing message about humans and their connections to the natural world and their place in the cycle of life. Nature is mysterious and unknowable, and humans can do no more than accept this idea and submit without complaint to the natural world’s whims, as represented by the suddenness of the tsunami that smashes into the island. (Er, shouldn’t the turtle woman with her deep knowledge of the natural world have received sufficient advance warning from earth tremors to warn her men to build a raft and put out to sea before the tsunami arrived?) The possibility of humans being partners with Nature and maintaining a balance between their interests and the restrictions of the natural world does not even occur. Those viewers anticipating that the film might address philosophical issues of existence and life’s purpose will be astonished that the plot has no time for such questions.

I don’t like to say that a film has been a waste of time to watch but with “The Red Turtle”, I’ve lost 80 minutes of time that could have been better spent doing something else. The film itself could have been condensed into much less time than it took to tell its story.

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