Monday, September 26, 2016

Film: "The Red Turtle" (And Its Fairy Tale Roots)

“Washing up on the shores of Cannes after nearly a decade of painstaking under-the-radar toil, Michael Dudok de Wit’s hypnotizing, entirely dialogue-free ‘The Red Turtle’ is a fable so simple, so pure, it feels as if it has existed for hundreds of years, like a brilliant shard of sea glass rendered smooth and elegant through generations of retelling...” (Variety Chief International Film Critic Peter Debruge)
Popping up on our fairy tale radar this past week, a new animated film, The Red Turtle. It's a new Ghibli film, released this last Friday (September 23, 2016) and, a first for the Japanese studio, an international co-production, directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, and animated in France and Belgium by a series of animation companies.

Here's the trailer:
With rave reviews coming from the Toronto International Film festival and critics around the globe, it isn't necessarily obvious that a "castaway and desert island survival" film would have fairy tale connections, but our radar blipped insistently so we went digging and found it did indeed!

But first, what is this film? It's an almost-dialogue free celebration of both Nature and man's indomitable Nature, surviving and thriving against the odds. It's also, reportedly, an immersive film which the viewer just needs to experience. While possibly a risky venture, it's clear the team achieved their intent as we only seen glowing reports about people being very moved.

So where do fairy tales fit here? Reviewers and critics have been intuitively connecting the film to fairy tales in that they say "it's easy to believe this is an adaptation of a little known Hans Christian Andersen classic or perhaps a rare tale from some remote Pacific Island", even though it isn't, it's original. They're right, it is original but there is a also a fairy tale connection, though not perhaps the type that most readily spring to mind.

The fact that there's a magical turtle might initially be misleading, so we had to dig a little deeper.

We found an interview with writer and director Dudok de Wit, in which he said this:
On the inspiration for the magical turtle in the film: 
As a child, I was a voracious reader of fairy tales and myths and legends. When I started on this, Takahata sent me a book called Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn, which has Japanese traditional fairy tales about transformations of people and animals. 
Subconsciously I had a basis [for the story]... [the protagonist] wants to go home, the island is not his home. But he can't. Why can't he? I wanted a sea creature [to stop him], a shark, etc. Hang on — a turtle. Intuitively, it felt really good. My rational side looked at it a bit later, and the color came later, but at that moment, I thought, "Not only do we have our main character, but it's probably going to be the name of the film." So rationally, I can say I needed a mysterious sea creature that gives the impression of being immortal. It's a peaceful animal, non-aggressive, it's solitary, it disappears into infinity, which I find very important in this film. There's something very moving about a turtle leaving where she belongs, the sea, and going on the beach with a lot of effort, digging, laying eggs, filling the pits, and going back. I've seen one doing it — I've seen umpteen video clips. It looks like they can't make it, because it's such an effort. For a moment, they become like us, mammals who breathe, with arms and legs. And then they disappear [into the sea] again, and become part of infinity. So that all clicked together beautifully.
(You can read the rest of the interview HERE.)

Kwaidan can be translated as Japanese Weird Tales, or Tales About Strange Things (Sometimes you see it titled Stories and Studies of Strange Things.) Although Japan has more "fairy tales" as we might define them than China (which have more supernatural tales), Kwaidan is definitely a mix, and includes ghost and supernatural tales in addition to what you would find in a book specifically titled Japanese Fairy Tales. If you read both, however, you see overlaps and how they often exist in that same "fairy tale place". We highly recommend reading the volume if you haven't already!

So keep an eye out for The Red Turtle. It's clear that among filmmakers, at present, there's a big interest in going back to the "old" fairy tales, legends and myths and creating new works inspired by them. Although this won't be considered a "fairy tale film", it's already widely regarded as a fable, and it's refreshing to see creators explore new narratives (even if they're mostly silent), spring-boarding from old tales, instead of just retelling familiar ones. It brings a nice balance to the storytelling people are engaging in, in the 're-boot' age, with nods to both history and the future.

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