After the pleasant (but still mildly depressing) surprise that was My Life as a Zucchini, I’ll admit: I was pretty excited to check out the final Oscar’s animation nod for this year. Add to that the fact that Studio Ghibli also had their hands in this animated feature and, well, it just seemed like a slam dunk. Despite everything it had going for it, though, director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle—La Tortue Rouge in French and Aru Shima no Monogatari in Japanese—just didn’t stack up to any of the excitement or expectations I had for it. It’s no secret that the Oscars, or any mainstream award show, is basically just a huge circle jerk for popular companies. Still, the fact that this film was even nominated at all, to me, shows that Disney’s association with Ghibli (and, well, how awesome Ghibli usually is) overrode any actual critical viewing of this film.
Our milquetoast fairy tale unfolds as a nameless young man is shipwrecked and stranded on a deserted island. Desperate to stay alive and find his way off the island, he explores the bamboo-forested land in front of him, eventually releasing his frustrations in an anguished scream at the island’s peak. He discovers fruits, various sea life, and even manages to get out of a nearly fatal scrape where he falls into a pit and had to swim through a narrow passage to get out. Eventually, he grows tired of this and decides to build a raft. His first attempt is brought to an abrupt end as the raft is destroyed by a mysterious force while he’s riding it in the middle of the ocean. His second attempt meets the same fate. So too does his third, but this time he manages to catch the creature responsible for making him look like a fucking fool: a large, mysterious red turtle.
Some time passes, and the red turtle eventually comes up on land. Still furious that this turtle apparently had a vendetta against him, the man takes out his frustrations on the creature, striking it with a bamboo pole and turning it on its back, leaving it to die in the hot island sun. He comes to regret his actions, but by the time he does it’s too late: the turtle is dead. As he continues his life on the island—the turtle’s body still untouched—strange things begin to happen. First, the turtle’s underside develops a clean crack down its center. Then, right as a rain settles in, the turtle changes into a woman. And… you can probably already see where this is going. After falling in love, the two have a child. From there, the film just kind of follows their lives up until their son leaves to live with the other green turtles in the sea (I am not making this up) and the man dies. Truly thrilling.
If it sounds like I’m being unusually harsh on this film, I probably am. I’m well aware of this. It just hurts, you know? When I see the name Studio Ghibli attached to a film, I expect it to have a certain quality to it. Or, to put it more bluntly, I expect it to be good—if not in story, then at least in female representation. Admittedly Ghibli’s main role in this collaboration with the German studio Wild Bunch seems focused on the production side, but the entirety of the marketing in the West is focused on showcasing that Ghibli was a part of it; basically selling The Red Turtle as Ghibli’s film. And Ghibli’s current track record is pretty damned good with relatable female protagonists who actually do things and have stuff like motives and character arcs, so seeing The Red Turtle basically use its only female character as a prop cuts me deeply. Our titular red turtle seems to only appear to assuage our main character’s guilt, magically coming back to life after succumbing in turtle form most likely to a mix of dehydration and starvation. Then she gives him a “purpose” in the form of falling in love and starting a family. There’s a lot about this that’s annoying, but in terms of fairy tales I would have been less disgusted if the red turtle was given any characterization at all. We know she was destroying the protagonist’s rafts, but there’s never any reason given for why she was doing that. She didn’t seem to hate him or fear him, and she never came off as playful or mischievous either, so just fucking with him is probably out of the question. Then, after destroying his rafts and getting fucking murdered by him, she comes to life as a beautiful woman and falls in love with him? It’s (bad) fairy tale logic to be sure, but it’s fairy tale logic without any of the fairy tale story to suspend my disbelief.
Also, as a side note, why is she thin? As far as animals go, turtles certainly aren’t a creature I would say were “thin,” but even outside of that there was no reason the magical turtle woman had to be thin. But I digress…
Going back to the fairy tale logic, while the film seemed to just expect the audience to go along with whatever it threw at us in terms of character “development,” it expected us to do the same thing with its magic. So, the red turtle is a turtle—now-turtle-woman. This much is clear, but how does it affect her? It appears that she has improved lung capacity underwater. Okay, cool. Now cut to her half-turtle son. He has the improved lung-capacity too, which makes sense, but everything else surrounding him is a huge mystery. As far as the film is concerned, it never shows us that he has learned anything about being part turtle or anything about being exposed to turtles at all, yet even without this exposure his milkshake brings all the turtles to his yard. This boy can swim with the turtles no problem and they all flock to him like ducks to white bread. At the end of the film, he leaves the island, presumably to start his own life. Not a human life, though. He leaves with the turtles, swimming into the sea indefinitely. Which would be cool if we had any idea if he could, you know, turn into a turtle—something his mother can still do—but he’s never been shown to have the same ability, even when rescuing his father from drowning after a tsunami hits the island. If he can’t do that, he’s still human, which means he’s probably going to die somewhere in the middle of the ocean because he’s a fucking human and we can’t swim forever or live in salt water.
Make no mistake, the animation in The Red Turtle is beautiful, but a feature length film shouldn’t be lauded for its animation alone. If there’s one thing I liked about the film outside of the animation, it would be the choice to not have dialogue. Doing this really allowed the music to speak for itself and honestly, to give a backhanded compliment, adding the dialogue would have only spotlighted just how boring the story was. In the end, I can’t even really laud the film for having an entirely PoC cast because it feels like 1) another “character of color is actually an animal/turns into an animal” trope and like 2) another exploitation of the “savage” trope.
It’s not a blatant use of this trope by any means, but when your main character has more than one hallucination about “civilization” that is comprised of four white dudes in powdered wigs playing in a string quartet (which, since it’s implied our main character is Indian, brings up even more questions about white imperialism) and gives up entirely on trying to get back to his home, suddenly–out of nowhere–content with living an island life, it feels as though our (white) film writer is putting forth the message that of course he would be happy here. That this lifestyle somehow suits him much better than trying to go back home. The Red Turtle isn’t the first “man versus nature” film of this sort, but usually—when the protagonist is white—they find their way back to civilization. In and of itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to explore a story like this with a non-white cast, but given that their race is inconsequential to anything and that the pool of animated features starring an entirely non-white cast is so small, it sticks out and is a bit worrying. Given all this and the fact that our protagonist never grows as a character even after killing the turtle who is later his wife, I would suggest skipping this film.