Last year was such a stellar one for animation, it was almost guaranteed that some great movies would not make the Oscar cut for Best Animated Feature. When the list was revealed Tuesday morning, the final five included a pair of Disney hits (Zootopia and Moana), a high-profile, stop-motion feature (Kubo and the Two Strings), and an acclaimed Swiss drama that already nabbed a Golden Globe nomination (My Life As a Zucchini). Also on the list was another import, The Red Turtle, which nabbed the fifth slot, beating out Pixar’s smash Finding Dory.
The Red Turtle‘s nomination isn’t exactly a surprise: It’s produced by Studio Ghibli, the storied Japanese animation house — co-founded by iconic animator Hayao Miyazaki — which has racked up five nominations and one victory for Miyazaki’s beloved 2001 fantasy, Spirited Away. Still, it’s likely not that familiar to casual animation fans. Directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit from an original screenplay he co-wrote with Pascale Ferran, The Red Turtle is an international collaboration that still very much fits within Studio Ghibli’s house style.
As with such vintage Ghibli productions as My Neighbor Totoro and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, The Red Turtle is an elemental story of the natural world with a touch of magic thrown in. Opening on a storm-tossed sea, the camera eventually locates a lone human figure in the waves, the presumed survivor of a shipwreck. Washed up on the shores of a deserted island, this nameless castaway explores his new surroundings, which at once seems both a paradise and a prison — a place of lush jungles and abundant fruit, surrounded by the endless ocean swells. Following three failed escape attempts, he comes face-to-face with the cause of his continued imprisonment: a large red turtle that, some time after touching land, transforms into a woman. The two then go on to become companions in the days, months, and years ahead.
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Told entirely without dialogue and with a minimal score — for the first 20 minutes, the only sounds we hear are the noises of the island — The Red Turtle displays many of the hallmarks of Miyazaki’s animation style, from the careful attention to the flora and fauna to the lively animation of the island’s animal inhabitants. But its European influences also shine through, most notably in the design of the human characters, who resemble characters in a Tintin comic book drawn by Belgian cartoonist Hergé.
After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last year, The Red Turtle’s U.S. distribution rights were acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, which opened the film in limited release on Jan. 20 and has a strong legacy of bringing international productions to these shores and getting them into the Oscar conversation. Three of Sony Pictures Classics’ past animated releases — The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, and The Illusionist — have been nominated in the Best Animated Feature category, while the Israeli film, Waltz With Bashir became the first cartoon to receive a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Although Zootopia is the heavy favorite in early predictions of this year’s race, The Red Turtle could prove to the be the surprise that swims away with the Oscar.