The Red Turtle and My Life As a Courgette: Oscar nominated animations with very different charms

Studio Ghibli's eloquent animation and lack of dialogue contrast with a pleasureably prickly French-language animation

The Red Turtle and My Life As a Courgette were nominated for this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Feature and both films represent an advancement of sorts for that form. Co-produced by Studio Ghibli, The Red Turtle has the patient storytelling style of that gentle giant of Japanese animation, though it is the Dutch writer-director Michael Dudok de Wit whose vision predominates. De Wit already has an Oscar for his pencil-and-charcoal short Father and Daughter (2000), which compressed one woman’s life into eight minutes. In The Red Turtle, the loneliness of the earlier film’s ­riverbank setting is superseded by the isolation of a desert island where a nameless man is stranded but the animation has lost none of its evocative simplicity.

There is no dialogue here, only music: the score, by Laurent Perez del Mar, is pretty, with a tendency toward New Age dreaminess, rather like the film. Land and sky are represented by a watercolour wash with a minute grain. The motion of the sea is mostly expressed by a soft ripple and the occasional thin, foamy line. The hero is drawn straightforwardly, with a mop of hair, two dots for eyes and a tiny curl for his nose. He is often the sole moving element in a landscape: when he walks across a forest floor carpeted with leaves, or scoops water from a puddle to drink, the leaves don’t stir and the surface of the water does not break.

His negligible impact on the surroundings merely intensifies his solitude. At least Tom Hanks in Cast Away could count on Wilson the volleyball. This chap has only an audience of hermit crabs, which line up on the shore like Space Invaders to watch his failed attempts at escape. Then they scuttle away again, unimpressed, their claws clacking like typewriter keys.

Whenever the hero launches his improvised raft, a giant turtle barges the vessel from beneath. Eventually he attacks the creature in a fury, breaking a bamboo pole on its head. The next day, it turns into a flame-haired woman. Princesses may have to kiss a lot of frogs before they get their prince but this fellow only has to whack a single turtle to find The One.

From there, it’s plain sailing. They fall in love and have sex. Or, in the film’s euphemistic version, they float upwards in a serene circle of joy, which I suppose means the Earth moved. Nine months later, Baby makes three. It was at this point that I pined for dialogue, if only to hear the response when the child is old enough to ask: “So, Dad, how did you and Mum meet?”

Eloquent animation keeps The Red Turtle afloat through these Garden of Eden passages. No such soppiness in My Life As a Courgette, where the residents of a children’s home discuss how babies are made. “The girl talks loudly about how much she agrees with the guy: ‘Oh yes! Yes! Yes!’ Then his willy explodes.” So much for the serene circle of joy. But if you like your courgettes salted, then this French-language animation by the Swiss director Claude Barras, which uses jerky, playbox-coloured stop-motion models of the kind seen in Henry Selick’s Coraline, will be just the dish.

The title character is a doleful, blue-haired boy, placed in care following the death of his alcoholic mother. For all that she neglected him, Courgette still nurses one of her empty beer cans. His fellow lost boys and girls have similarly complicated family relationships. “My parents did drugs – like, a lot,” an orange-quiffed bully with skulls on his clothes confides. It’s a hard-knock life all right, but Annie this is not. So it’s disappointing that the otherwise smart screenplay by Céline Sciamma (who wrote and directed the recent feature Girlhood) idealises most of the father figures while appointing a venal, slutty aunt as the villain of the piece. It’s as if Daddy Warbucks and Miss Hannigan had stumbled into a Ken Loach film.

But the picture still has much in its favour, including a skiing trip where we see these mismatched outsiders through another child’s eyes, as well as a score laced with jagged electric guitars that are as pleasurably prickly as the film.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain