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The Red Turtle

Year: 2016
Production Co: Prima Linea Productions
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Writer: Michael Dudok de Wit/Pascale Ferran

There's a long and proud tradition in movies with no dialogue that subtly and cleverly appeal to our emotions through only visuals. To a psychologist, such a phenomenon is proof that humans are story/meaning-making machines. We recognise and interpret the looks on the characters faces and the circumstances they find themselves mixed up in and we immediately and automatically empathise.

It's especially the case here because the gorgeous, pencil-art inspired animation is quite simplistic. The human characters are all in proportion rather than Disneyesque, but their eyes have no visible irises, and neither they nor the scenery have many realistic shadow effects, so we're given the merest visual information on which to base what we imagine they feel in their plight.

And the story is similarly simple, unfussy and meandering in both the premise and pace. With no idea how he got there or who he is (information which will be similarly ignored throughout the movie), we meet an unnamed man being tossed in a thunderous sea, holding on to the wreckage from a boat for dear life.

He lands on a prototypical deserted island where he scratches a living out of the animal and plant life, but the place is deserted so he eventually realises he's going to have to build a raft to get away. When he gets a little way out to sea, something huge crashes up from underneath, crippling his little watercraft and prompting a long swim back to shore.

A few days later, he's assembling an even bigger raft from stripped logs he carries to the beach from the forested interior and ties together, rolling it into the surf on a ramp made of other logs. Again it's smashed to pieces from below and you're as worried as he is it's a man-eating shark.

When he finally assembles a raft the size of a house and it's again attacked, he sees his assailant is actually a gigantic red sea turtle which regards him curiously. When he sees it in the shallow bay later he drags it ashore in a temper, flips it onto its back and hits it in the head with a branch, leaving it on the shore upside down to presumably die.

But when his conscience grips him, the man returns to the turtle to save it. Only this time, he can't lift it, so after trying to keep it alive by splashing water on it, he goes to sleep beside it. Through the night, the turtle's body splits in half and reveals an unconscious young woman inside.

Over the coming days the man tends her, covering her up from the rain and trying to feed her, and when she eventually wakes up and he sees her in the sea, the two realise their common humanity, bond and soon fall in love.

They eventually have a son they raise on the island, and the midsection of the movie shows us their idyllic family life of leisure, love, joy and exploration. But the island is all the son has ever known, and when he reaches a certain age and starts looking toward the horizon, his ageing parents know it's time for him to leave. Alone again, they grow old together and go about their lives, still in love. I won't spell out what happens as it's fairly obvious given the 'circle of life' theme of the whole story, but what transpires after that inevitable conclusion will have you blubbering into a tissue unless you're made of solid stone.

It's so soft, gracious, gentle, poetic and silent there's more than enough room to imbue every possible metaphor you could possibly want about how we're part of nature, how the Earth actually loves us, how humans come together and then separate, about how no matter how strong love is Buddhist principles of impermanence always apply.

Or if you want only to look at the surface, you'll be more than richly rewarded. This ins't the crazy-characters-in-the-real-world of Pixar or its modern peers, it's more along the artistic lines of what we saw from the stories of Raymond Briggs. There isn't even the sweep and flourish of other pencil-style art like in Dr Seuss, everything is made up of thin hairlines that delineate colours from each other with no real stereoscopic depth.

But like some of the best examples of Studio Ghibli's work (a co-producer on this film), it depicts the natural worlds of water, leaves, animals and air with such whimsy it feels more real than any superhero blockbuster you could compare it to. There are easily two dozen points where you could freeze frame it and make a poster.

It'll reaffirm your faith not just in movies but storytelling altogether.

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