The Red Turtle was my favourite animated movie of 2017. And it had some pretty stellar competition. There is a lot you can say about this movie. You could talk about its atmospheric animation. Every frame feeling like portraits of a tranquil island during the Romantic era. Really getting the calm, maddening serenity of the space. You could talk about it’s beautiful score, one of the best I’ve heard from any animated feature ever. One that nearly makes me well up when I hear it. You could talk about its excellent use of dream sequences; how they successfully keep the facade that it’s reality before dropping the reveal, and yet still feel like dreams. Or how it is told entirely without dialogue, and yet you connect to the characters so effortlessly well in a pretty short space of time.
But I’m not gonna talk about any of that. As you likely guessed from the title, I’m going to talk about the film’s use of perspective.
Perspective is obviously important in a constantly moving visual medium. How and when you cut into a moment, how the camera lets you know which POV the scene is taking place from, is important to keep you invested in the story and its progression. But The Red Turtle does something really interesting with its perspective; nearly the entirety of it is told from as wide a frame as possible. Close-ups are here, of course, but we spend most of the time pulled away from the characters, and even objects, in a widescreen shot of the setting.
Now, the film is animated. One of the advantages animation has over live-action is that the ‘camera’, for lack of a better term, can go wherever the director wants it to; they’re creating everything from scratch. Live-action can broach that limitation too with the advancement of technology, but it tends to be money dependent and they can’t always break the laws of physics. The perspective is only limited by the creative team’s imagination in an animated setting. So this is a very conscious choice that the filmmakers want you to view this story in.
Why did they? There are a few reasons that we can ascertain-maybe to get the sense of isolation the character feels a lot more apparent (a lot of the close-ups are on other life surrounding him, like the turtles and crabs). But I think this creates another feel of how the audience is meant to absorb this story. To illustrate my point, let’s use an example; 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That’s right, motherfuckers! I’m comparing this minimalist animated film from the guys who made Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo to a Stanley fucking Kubrick flick. LET’S GET THIS MOTHERFUCKING STA
2001: A Space Odyssey does not really have a protagonist, but it has a focal point to tell its story: The Monitor. This mysterious being appears in all the stories and influences humanity’s growth. It’s also framed in an ominous, reverent way. It’s usually shot from afar where it dominates the frame, and in close-ups the camera is tilted, to give this sort of awe-inspired pose as we gaze upon this being. That’s because the Monitor is a god, or at least we’re meant to look at it in that way. It guides us through this story of human kind as we see how we’ve always struggled with adapting to our own advancements. The only time it’s framed in a more neutral way is when it sees Dave on its deathbed in the final segment. Because we’ve reached the apex of this tale, and thus we are its equal instead of its student.
Going back to The Red Turtle, I think something similar is happening here. Except no figure within the narrative is being framed as the God, so that is us. We are not being guided by the god, we are the gods of this story: all seeing, observant, and apathetic. We see how this man suffers, and it goes to painstaking lengths to feel as real as possible, until we reach the turning point in the story. Once we reach that point, we get one of the very few extreme close-ups in the film; the red turtle’s face. This is to tell us that something major is about to change, and this is where a lot of ambiguous stuff begins to take place.
I don’t want to divulge too much into the story, because honestly, I want people to experience it for themselves. But there’s a great moment the narrative prepares you for that makes you decide how the protagonist story goes. And, being honest, it puts you in that position to be merciful or cruel. Despite the shitty things that happens to him, or the shitty thing he does, I want to believe in the humanity of the viewers comes out in this moment.
Whether you agree with the God stuff or not, that sense of trust in the audience is really special, and provides a contextual outlet for the way the film makes you feel so passively observant of its world. You take in everything this small island provides from a distance, cutting in to show smaller animals and important character beats, but nothing too major. It shows a lot by saying very little, and because of the movie’s faith in me to decide on where it goes, I think it adds to the experience of how much the ending breaks me, and uplifts my spirits at the same time. It feels very life-affirming to me, because even in the darkest times, in the darkest moments, life finds a way to give back. The Dude provides.
At least, that’s my own perspective. What’s yours?
(excuse me while I sob endlessly over how beautiful this score is)