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Reviews

The Beauty and the bland

The Red Turtle casts a spell from the start, while Brain On Fire misses the mark

Two films this week illustrate why the question, "What reason should anyone have for watching this?", can be answered in different ways, and that not every answer is correct.

The mesmerising The Red Turtle (PG, 81 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars, showing only at The Projector) casts a spell from the opening scene.

A man is fighting for his life in a sea storm, pummelled by the most delicately rendered waves seen in recent animation.

Made on a budget that might cover the cost of lunch for the Pixar team, London-based Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit has created a work of astonishing beauty. And he did it while working under the strictest rules of minimalism: There is no spoken dialogue; the soundtrack is so unobtrusive, it is never noticed.

The animation The Red Turtle (above) strips storytelling down to its mythic fundamentals. In Brain On Fire (left), Chloe Grace Moretz's depiction of a person afflicted with brain seizures is an upside to a formulaic movie.
The animation The Red Turtle (above) strips storytelling down to its mythic fundamentals. In Brain On Fire, Chloe Grace Moretz's depiction of a person afflicted with brain seizures is an upside to a formulaic movie. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The movie's distinctive illustration style owes a debt to the clear line ("ligne claire") style of Herge, the illustrator for the Tintin books - a style that even director Steven Spielberg thought was too dated for his Tintin adaptation (The Adventures Of Tintin, 2011); he went with industry-standard 3D art.

There is a reason this work was made and it is there from the beginning to the end - it is to strip storytelling down to its mythic fundamentals. In that spirit, de Wit is similar to Alfonso Wong, the Lao Fu Zi comics creator who died earlier this year.

The nameless castaway in The Red Turtle is alone, until one day, he is not, through a magical event which de Wit depicts with understatement. Following this, the story's serene tone remains - their home is not quite Eden (because there is sadness and tragedy on the island) but instead of a portrait of a lone survivor, the story becomes about an Adam and Eve.

Producers from Japan's Studio Ghibli advised on de Wit's story. Their influence can be seen in how nature and the supernatural coexist, but unlike Ghibli classics such as Spirited Away (2001) or Princess Mononoke (1997), de Wit never goes so far as to give them a physical shape.

There are no forest spirits or guardian demons, except for the rosy-hued animal that gives the film its title.

The animation The Red Turtle strips storytelling down to its mythic fundamentals. In Brain On Fire (above), Chloe Grace Moretz's depiction of a person afflicted with brain seizures is an upside to a formulaic movie.
The animation The Red Turtle strips storytelling down to its mythic fundamentals. In Brain On Fire (above), Chloe Grace Moretz's depiction of a person afflicted with brain seizures is an upside to a formulaic movie. PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR

The medical misfire Brain On Fire(PG13, 90 minutes, opens tomorrow, 1.5/5 stars) is based on a true story and apparently its producers thought this was sufficient reason to breathe life into the project. It is not.

Chloe Grace Moretz, a fine actress who has been thrashing about for a good role lately, is Susannah Cahalan, a journalist who turned her battle with a rare disease into a memoir, published in 2012.

Much of the movie is taken up with setting up Susannah as the Woman With So Much To Lose (a great career, a loving fiance, loving parents) before (cue the "dun dun" music) the first symptoms strike.

What follows is a series of medical setbacks, repeated ad nauseam, with the upside being Moretz's startling depiction of a person afflicted with seizures.

Structurally formulaic, plagued by a bland protagonist and an even blander supporting cast transplanted from a bad network sitcom (examples include Jenny Slate's sassy Jewish colleague and Tyler Perry's bad-tempered editor), this is one disease diary that should have been euthanised during development.

An animated film with no dialogue and no message

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline 'The Beauty and the bland'. Print Edition | Subscribe