The Red Turtle, Academy Award-winning, Dutch writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit’s first feature animation, is an ambitious, gorgeous debut about a man stranded on a small, tropical island.
The first shot is of our hero, an unnamed survivor swimming for his life in a massive storm. He awakens in the aftermath on a breezy beach populated by harmless animals. This island is a paradise complete with a fish and clam lagoon, a bamboo field, an easily scalable, rounded hill, and a marshy interior with fresh drinking water. The man attempts to escape by building bamboo rafts but is seemingly foiled by a distinctly red sea turtle. Although initially persistent, the castaway comes to accept his fate and live on the island. To speak more of the plot would spoil the intrigue that follows.
The film explores emotions through carefully drawn scenes involving grief, sacrifice and longing with a strong emphasis on simple visuals. Comic relief crabs recall the spirits from Studio Ghibli’s previous productions, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. We often see what the character sees. Sometimes things are not as they appear, such as a clump of rocks that from a distance give the illusion of a body.
There is an unplaceable openness to the castaway and his setting, making his story feel more accessible. What is all the more amazing is this is accomplished without any dialogue whatsoever. Another of the film’s great creative decisions is the protagonist’s lack of backstory. He could be from anywhere. There is nothing to contrast, such as an “outer world” or “normal” life. He just is. The greater, outside world might as well not exist, if it does at all. Save for one round, glass bottle, there are no signs of a greater society.
The Red Turtle’s minimalism makes it ripe for interpretation. Take the colour red. Is it meant to symbolize love, or struggle, or that which is opposite? Is the island actually purgatory? It is never made clear. The answer is also completely unnecessary.
There is an underlying feeling of jungle law. Species are depicted preying on one another. The island feels very alive, complete with spiders, centipedes, flies, ants, carbs, birds, fish and sea lions tied to specific regions.
Aside from bright, watercolour animation and excellent sound work, many of the film’s scenes are complimented by an elegant score from Laurent Perez Del Mar. His work adds tinges to already ethereal sequences, especially monochrome nighttime scenes, blurring dreamlike and reality.
For a first feature, Dudok de Wit has crafted something surprising — an animated curiosity that is intimate and universal. At an hour and 20 minutes, it’s a good thing he didn’t try to be too clever. The story avoids doling out supernatural puzzle pieces like some Lost-esque wannabe, so if you’re looking for answers, this may disappoint. I found myself on the edge of my seat a few times, waiting to see what happened next. The Red Turtle is a simple film, both visually and narratively. Its meditative qualities defy pigeonholing and deserve praise.