Last weekend brought the nationwide opening of The Lego Batman Movie, a computer-animated whizbang that uses the Lego brand's spark-plug characters and interlocking construction bricks to spoof the Batman/Superman/DC Comics universe. Like many children's animations, the movie is a pinball machine of gags, wisecracks, and knowing pop-culture references, designed to feed the attention deficit disorder of kids and adults alike. Everything is foregrounded, everything is in your face, and your eyes dart around in the darkness of the theater like a caged bird. The Lego Batman Movie is an exercise in media overload, the density that is the void, the endless endlessness of modern entertainment.
The Red Turtle, which also opened in Chicago last week, embodies the opposite principle: it's a movie about the background. Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit has enjoyed a four-decade career in the business, contributing to such Hollywood projects as Heavy Metal (1981) and Fantasia/2000 (1999) while also directing his own lovely and idiosyncratic shorts. Among his fans are the founders of Studio Ghibli, the revered Japanese animation outfit, and in 2006 the studio approached De Wit to direct his debut feature, partnering with the U.S. production company Wild Bunch. The Red Turtle is the first European animation ever backed by Ghibli, though the film differs in some respects from the studio's typical output—the characters are more simply drawn and characterized, and they occupy a more humble place in the story, enveloped in highly detailed natural environments.
In the movie's press notes De Wit recalls needing to pare down his story in development, and that was a wise impulse: what remains is so spare and elemental that the entire 80-minute film transpires without a word of dialogue. The opening shot reveals massive blue waves lashed by rain and broken suddenly by a man's head as he pops out of the water, gasping for air. Washed onto the beach of a remote island, the castaway revives and explores the terrain, finding himself alone. He harvests bamboo trunks from the forest adjoining the shore and fashions himself a raft to escape from the island, but when he takes it out on the water he's menaced by a giant turtle with a ruby-red shell that batters his raft from below and eventually shatters it. Later the man discovers that the turtle has crawled ashore, and he flips it over on its back—scorned by the man, it eventually dies in the hot sun, and its shell cracks. But then, in the middle of the night, the dead turtle magically transforms into a beautiful woman with a long mane of ruby-red hair.
Despite the human characters, there are almost no facial close-ups in The Red Turtle; De Wit's narrative building block is the extreme long shot, usually from an overhead angle. As the man explores the island, moving inland from the shore's stark horizon line of blue sky meeting white sand, the story unfolds in dazzling, minutely detailed landscapes, which were drawn with charcoal on paper and then digitized. There are gently sloping mountains; steep cliffs overlooking the ocean; and lush, green bamboo forests with hundreds of individually drawn leaves, the tall trees reaching vertically across the frame as the man weaves through them. The detail is rendered in black line work, and the coloring is even and subtly toned. The complexity of the backgrounds can be stunning: at one point the man wakes in the bamboo forest near a clearing, from which the moonlight illuminates the tree trunks and casts a mesh of diagonal shadows. This is one of those animations that creates a world so mesmerizing the characters need only wander around in it.
When De Wit does focus on his characters, they're often birds or sea creatures, and his imagery emphasizes their role in the grand design of nature. At the beginning of the movie, when the man has been washed ashore, a little crab pops out of the sand, scuttles and stops, scuttles and stops, circles the man's foot and stops, then crawls up his pant leg, rousing him from his sleep. Later he's awoken on the gray nocturnal beach by a tiny turtle crawling toward the sea, which he picks up and inspects. A school of these guys is making its way down the beach to the waterline; as the tide comes in, it pushes them back momentarily before pulling them in. (Moving water is one of the hardest things to animate, and De Wit does it fluidly, so to speak.) The only character in the movie to win an extreme, silent-film-style close-up is the title character, which stares at the man with obsidian eyes, its skin covered in irregular brown blotches that form a floral pattern around its central nostrils.
The cumulative effect of all this is to reduce the hero to his proper place in the cosmos. In the early scenes he struggles against his fate, but once the woman comes into his life, he begins to surrender to the environment. Numerous scenes occur after nightfall, the characters staring up into a sky lit by hundreds of points of light and giving themselves up to the immensity of it all. The turning point of the story is a wordless but visually eloquent sequence in which the man, standing on the beach, watches from a distance as the woman wades into the ocean and casts away her shell, and the woman, returning to the cover of the forest, spies on the man as he returns the gesture, shoving his half-finished second raft out to sea and renouncing rescue to grow old with her on the island. Good choice, dude—nothing awaits you back home but The Lego Batman Movie, and madness, and death. v
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect a sequence of events in the film and that Michael Dudok de Wit is Dutch.