If you're expecting "Red Turtle" to be a raucous animated tale with anthropomorphic critters conversing in pop-culture cliches, you're in for an acute case of shell shock. Michael Dudok De Wit's much-praised ink-and-brush tale is strictly for the arts crowd. Slow, lumbering and deeply esoteric. But if you possess patience and a yen for the stylings of Japan's Studio Ghibli, "Red Turtle" just might crawl into your good graces.
Most, though, will be like me: Often bored, unmoved and perplexed by how a large sea turtle magically turns into a beautiful woman; but more on that later. The show here isn't the dialogue-free story; it's the gorgeous animation that has a pleasant calming effect. Like a series of hypnotic watercolor paintings come to life, "Red Turtle" seduces and transfixes with its deceptively simple images of lovely seascapes in a tropical paradise.
The scene is a deserted South Pacific island that quite unexpectedly becomes home for a malnourished castaway. The man, who washes ashore with the tide, is at first fascinating to watch, as he resourcefully acclimates to a lonely life in which his only companions are the side-waddling crustaceans and, yes, turtles -- one in particular, who for some reason doesn't want our poor soul to leave. This is Act 1, and De Wit and his animators prove evocative in portraying man's capacity to adapt and persist in a love-hate relationship with nature. Then comes Act 2, when the aforementioned sea turtle persists in destroying raft after raft the castaway builds in hopes of reconnecting with civilization. But why? The reason soon reveals itself, but you might not want to accept it, as De Wit borrows liberally from the Irish legend of the selkie by turning the turtle into a woman who -- lucky for the castaway -- is both comely and the same age. Even better, they fall in love at first sight. What are the odds? Their ensuing relationship is rapturously rendered in eye-popping set pieces that are as pretty as they are romantic. And I would have been impressed if De Wit's film differed an iota from every other selkie movie I've seen. Of course, a baby soon appears -- part human, part amphibian -- and much frolicking occurs, because what else are you going to do when you're thousands of miles from another human being? It's here that the film starts to drag considerably, and De Wit seems to know it, as out of the blue he unleashes a deadly tsunami on the island. It's something to see, though; a perfect marriage of terrific animation and thunderous sound effects.
You're suddenly wowed. But it will be the last time, as the story co-written by De Wit and Pascale Ferran slowly peters out into cliches and unearned sentimentality. Some will no doubt be moved. I'm betting most won't. Still, there's no denying the artistry is spellbinding. But this is a rare case where the tortoise loses by a hair.
-- Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
"The Red Turtle"
An animated film by Michael Dudok De Wit.
(PG for thematic elements and peril.)