Having a Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards has brought attention to some truly offbeat movies. It’s been a particular boon to foreign films that might not have gotten as much attention without the gold glitter of the Oscars.
For instance, this year’s list of nominees includes “My Life as a Zucchini,” a Swiss-French production (that one opens locally in a couple of weeks), and “The Red Turtle,” directed by a Dutch filmmaker for the legendary Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli.
Kudos to the voters for noticing things beyond the Disney horizon. In the case of “The Red Turtle,” the achievement was hard to miss: This is a very artsy exercise in the cartooning craft.
More like a series of beautiful watercolors than a grabby piece of storytelling, this film unfolds without dialogue and without much explanation. But it begins with an old-fashioned premise: a man shipwrecked on an island.
The man tries to build a raft and sail away, but something in the ocean keeps bumping the raft and tearing its loose timbers apart. Turns out it’s a very large turtle.
What follows is an inexplicable act of transformation — as in a fairy tale, an animal morphs into a human — and various cycles of life and death on the island.
The director is Michael Dudok de Wit, who won an Oscar in the Animated Short category in 2001 for “Father and Daughter.” It’s not hard to see how he connected with Studio Ghibli, the producer of Hayao Miyazaki’s lush films (“Spirited Away”).
The look of “The Red Turtle” is like a series of panels flooded with color: the gray turbulent seas, the endless skies, the intense green density of an island forest. Without question, the movie is a visual dazzler.
It seems almost churlish to suggest that the mysterious story line is maybe overly woo-woo and precious. A little bit of that goes a long way, so it’s good that the 80-minute running time doesn’t tax one’s patience for this kind of thing.
This sort of fantasy is popular with animation fans, so “The Red Turtle” won’t have a problem finding its audience. And if it beats “Zootropia” and wins the Oscar, that’ll be a real statement on what the voters are thinking about: gorgeous pictures, or big box-office.
“The Red Turtle” (2 1/2 stars)
A 2016 Oscar nominee for Animated Feature, this artsy film chronicles the cycle of life on a remote island after a shipwrecked man washes up there. It’s a fairy tale, too, complete with animal-to-human transformation, which makes it a little woo-woo despite the truly gorgeous pictures on the screen.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Showing: Sundance Cinemas