It's a beautiful, elegant Rorschach test. It's about a man on a desert island. There's no dialogue. It's framed almost entirely in long shot, with very few close-ups. Its story is semi-magical and different viewers might think that what it's saying is either obvious or impenetrable. Is it mythological? Is it a religious allegory? Is it about a bloke on his own going nuts and seeing hallucinations? Is it about a magical turtle?
Dunno. Like I said, it's a Rorschach test. It just is. You bring whatever you want to it.
It has Studio Ghibli's name on it, but it's not a Japanese film. It's a co-production, with a French-speaking Dutch director who lives in London. The art style looks like Tintin, not anime, but the animation's so fluid and accurate that I was convinced it surely had to be CGI motion capture. Apparently I was wrong and it's not. It's all hand-drawn... maybe. Everywhere I look on the internet tells me a different story. Well, it hardly matters.
The setting and the natural world are all-important. The crabs are a joy to watch. (They're the funniest and most engaging part of the film, actually.) The backgrounds and the positioning of all these tiny living beings within them (human and otherwise) is usually the main point of the art. Admittedly there's a bit more death than some parents have been comfortable with, but personally I don't think there's a problem. It's just nature being nature. A seagull takes a crab. Fish get caught and eaten. That's the world our nameless protagonist is part of and it would have been Disneyfication to gloss over it. That's not what this film's about.
It's very simple. It's short. It's got plenty of action and physical movement, but it's also restful. It's different. It'll also baffle the hell out of anyone who takes everything literally and, to be honest, I'm not sure if I'd recommend it to anyone who's not inclined to arty stuff. I bought it as a potential Christmas present because it was Oscar-nominated and sounded special, but having watched it I don't think it's suitable for more than... oooh, one-and-a-half people on my list. It's not a story so much as an experience. You've got to decide for yourself what happens and what it all means, if anything. There's certainly lots of scope to dig into the story's rich, impossible material, but I don't think the film is actually giving us any of those meanings. It's just leaving a space for us to do so for ourselves. It's beautiful, though.