Comprehending Metaphors of “THE RED TURTLE”

Please watch the film's trailer:

I watch most animated films, shorts or features, from the point of view of an animator who works with 2-D images and deeply roots for the revival of the mainstream public’s respect and love for drawn animation. The question that has been asked since around 2000 – “Is 2-D animation dead?” irritates me. Children will always draw because the act of drawing is an active act of comprehending the world and they will always want to see their drawings move. As an adult one draws because it is an immediate, direct translation of a thought. To put those drawings in an animated movement is to share with other people the inner life of one's mind. To make a 3D image, on the other hand, one has to plan and plot ahead, so it is not as direct and immediate as drawing, but it is satisfying for an audience as it realistically represents an imaginary world.

SPOILER ALERT!  See “The Red Turtle” before continuing to read!

It was hard for me to not view “The Red Turtle” in the context of 2-D animators' struggles, as it brought to the surface this pressing question – “What is 2-D animation the most effective at doing?”  The film simultaneously fails and succeeds at making a case for why 2-D animation is great.

Let’s start with its premise.  In a storm, a man gets thrown on the beach of a faraway island.  He tries to get away from the island on a flimsy raft, but each time, the raft is destroyed by some unseen living force from below. On his third try, he sees that it’s a huge red turtle.

Back on the island, he is still seething when he sees the turtle climb on the beach. In a fury, the man grabs a bamboo stick and bangs the turtle on its head, turns it over on its back and lets it die. Once the turtle is dead, it turns into a beautiful sleeping woman, who eventually wakes up to have sex with the man and bears him a child. 

At this point in the film, you understand that this semi-realistic depiction of the man and the island is actually an aspiring metaphor for coupledom. One thing you should know about me – I love metaphors.  They are short-cuts to a deeper meaning of life events, and they can be understood on the intuitive level, bypassing the rationale of a logical mind.

The director’s (Michael Dudok de Wit) Oscar-winning short, “Father and Daughter” is one of the finest examples of such an approach – the story about a daughter's life-long waiting for her father touched my deepest emotions without me understanding how it got there. “The Red Turtle”, on the other hand, left me emotionally uninvolved. Maybe because putting most of the story weight on a metaphor doesn't work in a feature length format?  A 90 minute film requires some connection between its audience and the film's characters. Watching "The Red Turtle" I was given no slightest idea about the psychology or motivations of the main character. I couldn’t feel for the man, because I didn’t know who he was, nor where he was coming from, so I was unsympathetic to his attempts to get away from the island. Him hitting the turtle turned me off completely. When the metaphor finally revealed itself I was cold to its charms. 

On the other hand I noted a tension between the film being a fairy-tale metaphor with surreal elements (a dead turtle turns into a woman) and its aspirations be realistic. The tension became obvious to me when the man and the turtle-woman started to live together and had only one child. One would realistically expect that a man and a woman living on a deserted island without contraceptives would have at least 12 - 16 offspring. "Did they have sex only once? - I couldn't help but ponder. "Or he is pulling out?" But that thought was a distraction, caused by the film's desire to ground the metaphor in physical reality. 

It was obvious that the artists did a thorough visual research on plants and animals, but I wished for more surreal images, characters and environments. The attempts to realistically translate the beauty of an exotic island into 2D images fell flat on me. 2-D animation will never be as good as amazing National Geographic documentary footage, or the animated 3-D depiction of the Amazon rain forest in “Rio”.  To try to achieve that in 2-D is, in my opinion, futile and ridiculous. It also distracted from what the film really was - a metaphor. 2D is better are something else. Early in the film, the man had three short dreams – each of them surreal, imaginative, symbolic, moody and powerful. It charged me with the hope of what the film could be, but the man always woke up and we were back on the island that was trying to imitate 3-D. 

Effectively, "The Red Turtle" uses no dialogue, it is one of the film's strengths. I love when ideas can be communicated without language. I also found using shadows very effective.

After the man couples up with the turtle-woman, the film slides into a cliche. They get a child. The child grow up. He wants to discover the world and leaves the island. His parents drift into old age and eventually the man peacefully dies from being too old to live. Now we get a twist in this coupledom metaphor: after the man dies the old woman turns into a red turtle and goes back into the water of the Ocean. This is a comment on womanhood: womanhood is eternal, mysterious force that outlives men. 

The film seems to say: Women are mythical creatures - animals that are able to briefly become human. I am sorry to say that in 2016 such views/metaphors don't do any good to us, women trying to achieve equal place in society. Women are human 24 hours every day of our lives, and, just like men, we feel pain and can die and be killed. Idolizing womanhood is just as belittling as judging women on their looks.

The more fitting metaphor of 2016 is a female protagonist who, after navigating challenges in a maze, finds herself herself facing the blood thirsty Minotaur