‘The Red Turtle’ Pulls Studio Ghibli Out of Its Shell

Cannes premiere is animation studio’s first external co-production

Cannes Premiere ‘The Red Turtle’ Is
Courtesy of Studio Ghibli

The dual geniuses behind Studio Ghibli, Japan’s most revered animation company, aren’t getting any younger. At age 75, “Spirited Away” director Hayao Miyazaki has all but retired, now focusing exclusively on short films, while “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” was 80-year-old Isao Takahata’s final feature.

That puts the studio in urgent need of younger talent to carry on their legacy — as tested with Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“When Marnie Was There”) and Goro Miyazaki (“From Up on Poppy Hill”). But it also inspired a one-of-a-kind project called “The Red Turtle,” which premieres this week in Cannes.

As Studio Ghibli’s first external co-production, “The Red Turtle” was made in France and directed by Dutch-born, London-based animator Michael Dudok de Wit, whose wordless Oscar-winning short “Father and Daughter” had become a favorite at Ghibli.

In pursuit of ways the company might innovate, producer Toshio Suzuki tasked French distributor Vincent Maraval with tracking down Dudok de Wit and convincing him to make a movie for Ghibli.Dudok de Wit was caught completely off-guard by the offer. He had no intention of ever directing a feature, instead preferring to make his hand-drawn, charcoal-based TV commercials and shorts almost entirely by himself. Though he was convinced no studio would allow him to make an entire feature his way, he respected Studio Ghibli’s work and took confidence in the execs’ enthusiasm.

“Right from the beginning, they made it very clear, the film would be made just like they make their own films: a director’s film, and the director would have final say,” recalls Dudok de Wit. He pitched them the story of a man who washes up on a desert island and must do battle with a mysterious sea turtle before getting on with his life.

For long stretches of the project, Dudok de Wit worked alone — though producers Wild Bunch and Prima Linea (the toon studio behind “Zarafa”) eventually paired him with screenwriter Pascale Ferran (“Bird People”) and recruited a team of animators from Angoulême, France, to realize his vision. Takahata himself visited regularly, offering beneficial feedback, even as he respected the director’s final say.

The resulting film looks nothing like other Ghibli projects, but is unmistakably the work of Dudok de Wit, whose charcoal textures and hand-drawn characters remain, as does the risky choice of telling a feature-length allegory without using a word of dialogue. There are few other animation studios on earth that give directors the kind of freedom Dudok de Wit enjoyed on “The Red Turtle,” and yet that independence is precisely what has historically made Ghibli strong — and would seem to be the key to the studio’s survival going forward, whether or not they ever try an international co-production again.