Surrounded by the immense and furious ocean, a shipwrecked mariner battles all alone for his life with the relentless towering waves. Right on the brink of his demise, the man set adrift by the raging tempest washes ashore on a small and deserted tropical island of sandy beaches, timid animal inhabitants and a slender but graceful swaying bamboo forest. Alone, famished, yet, determined to break free from his Eden-like prison, after foraging for food and fresh water and encouraged by the dense forest, the stranded sailor builds a raft and sets off to the wide sea, however, an indistinguishable adversary prevents him from escaping. Each day, the exhausted man never giving up hope will attempt to make a new, more improved raft, but the sea is vast with wonderful and mysterious creatures and the island's only red turtle won't let the weary survivor escape that easily. Is this the heartless enemy? Written by
A beautiful film about a man's relationship with his environment
A man awakens adrift in the middle of the ocean. He is able to swim to a nearby remote island which is only inhabited by crabs, birds and a mysterious red turtle. This is the premise to the Michaël Dudok de Wit's first feature length film, a collaboration between French production studio The Wild Bunch and Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli. The result of this collaboration is a visually stunning and emotionally complex film.
De Wit explained after the screening that he loved the desert island stories he heard as a child but wanted to tell a different story than Robinson Crusoe. He was less interested in the mechanics of how a man can live on (or escape from) a desert island and more interested in how that man would feel. The practicalities of how the man would survive on this island are dealt with early on and in little detail. The island has fruit bearing trees and a pool of drinkable water at its centre. A very tense sequence early in the film sees the man fall into a crevice and swim the length of a claustrophobic underwater tunnel to escape. These sequences of peril are few. The majority of the film concerns the real interest of the director; what would keep a man on his island? What would he need to be happy there? De Wit explained his process as being very natural. He arrived at the premise and then wrote the story without a plan. He wanted something to keep the man on the island, something natural. He then settled on a giant turtle saying it just felt right. Not too cute, nor too animalistic. The effect of this writing style is that the film has a very dream like quality.
The animation is stunning. The island is rendered in lush colours. The realistic approach to character movements and environments makes the fantastical elements all the more spellbinding.
The director also mentioned symbolism in his discussion, hoping that it was clear. I must admit that if the film is a direct allegory then it's a little elusive. Perhaps it's a story about surrendering the instinct to escape one's circumstances and learning to embrace them. Or perhaps it's about not yearning to return to home but to make one for oneself. The man initially dreams of bridges leaving the island and string quartets appearing on the beach. As the man explores the wonders of the island he stops dreaming, discovering that the island has its own fantasies to offer. The deceptively simple story demands some thought but more significantly insists on being felt.
Other interesting details from the discussion with the director included the sudden contact from Studio Ghibli. Someone from the studio contacted him having seen some of his animated shorts. He was offered the chance to make whatever film he wanted. This, surely, is the impossible dream of all animators. He described the experience of working with the animation giant as incredibly rewarding, with their input and guidance allowing him to make a better film.
It is interesting to see the Ghibli elements within the film. Most noticeably, I think, the studio has influenced the wildlife seen on screen. Aside from the eponymous reptile, the man is joined on his island by a group of crabs. These crabs are drawn realistically but act anthropomorphically, functioning as comic relief. It's difficult not to recall the Soot Sprites from Spirited Away. However despite the whimsy of these crabs, they are still depicted as part of nature. They drag live fish away to be consumed and are themselves eaten by birds. The juxtaposition of the charms of nature with its horrors recalls the woodland scenes from The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
This is a very unique film. It has far less in common with stories like Castaway than its premise may suggest. Instead this is a fantastical exploration of what makes a person content with their surroundings. Fans of Michaël Dudok de Wit will appreciate the flawless transition he has made to feature film and fans of Studio Ghibli will find plenty of the magic and wonder they may be missing since When Marnie Was There.
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