Review: The Red Turtle Says More With Less

By Nguyen Le · February 16, 2017

Simplicity can be a complex thing. 

Take the old folktale of Trang Quynh, for example – a recipient of the highest rank in the Vietnmaese Confucian court examination system, Qunyh is challenged by a Chinese envoy to draw an animal within three drum strikes. Unperturbed, Quynh assures the envoy that he can draw 10 in such a time. The envoy is, reasonably, shocked. Soon, the challenge begins and, as the envoy busies himself with drawing a tiger, Quynh remains calm as he takes in his surroundings. As the third beat lands, Quynh dips ten fingers into the paint and swipes them down on the canvas. The envoy is forced to accept defeat – after all, his one tiger is no match for Quynh’s ten earthworms.

Admittedly, “glory” isn’t the goal of The Red Turtle’s back-to-basics approach to animation and storytelling. Still, its intentional distancing from modernity makes it a force to be reckoned with in this year’s Best Animated Feature race. What the film lacks in set pieces, cutting edge animation techniques, and goofy characters, it more than makes up for in its purity of design, and this “less-is-more” approach to narrative is likely to impact viewers in a far richer way than the vast majority of its busy-bodied contemporaries. Quite simply, Turtle represents the finest love letter imaginable to what is quickly becoming an obsolete art.

Those who watched the 2001 Oscars would agree that director Michael Dudok de Wit, through Father and Daughter, is capable of calling up emotions, tears and life lessons with nothing but ambience and a tiny handful of characters. Now, with a longer runtime (and an “upgrade” in terms of gasps, groans and grunts from his characters), Turtle provides a much broader canvas than his earlier work. As one would expect, for something so minimalist, there’s an surprising level of sophistication to the film’s design, all of which work in perfect harmony in order to convey the protagonist’s growing relationship with the film’s titular animal.

It’s tough to say more of the plot since… that’s really all there is. And yet, it seems unfair to label the film as “just” a romance given its overarching, incredibly nuanced commentary on humanity’s relationship with nature. That latter motif, along with the carefully considered artistry, might explain how Turtle gained the endorsement of Studio Ghibli, the acclaimed Japanese animation house with a penchant for Mother Earth. Likewise here, the story written by Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran constantly suggests that nature is a force to lived with rather than fought against.

Cementing this sense of harmony is composer Laurent Perez del Mar’s ethereal score. Much like the film’s overall vision and execution, the orchestra directs attention to the imagery rather than to itself, with minor variations to its theme and nothing more. There is a certain novelty from this repetition, however: The music has a decidedly Eastern-leaning scent, which is special for something of European origins, and that this approach grants Turtle the ability to resonate with everyone, everywhere.

Similar to the film’s opening in which our protagonist finds himself pummeled by a vexed sea, Turtle faces an uphill battle this awards season in what has been an unusually strong year for animation. Studio Ghibli’s two most recent heavy hitters (The Wind Rises and Princess Kaguya) faced similar hurdles, which does little to bolster The Red Turtle’s chances come Oscar night.

Nevertheless, much in the spirit of Trang Quynh, Dudok de Wit and his talented team seem to be operating under the wisest of notions – namely that complexity for complexity’s sake doesn’t equal quality storytelling. For this reason above all, The Red Turtle moves with the sort of precision and singularness that has all but disappeared from cinemas.