The Red Turtle is a largely wordless animated feature, directed by French-British animator Michael Dudok De Wit. De Wit has had a prominent career in animation, working on Heavy Metal in 1981 and working with Disney on Fantasia 2000. The Red Turtle is co-produced by Studio Ghibli in Japan and Wild Bunch in France, so whilst it does have the magic of Studio Ghibli, the animation style is much more European. The film was already nominated for best animated feature at this year’s Oscars but lost out to Pixar’s Zootopia (Zootropolis).
I’ll state for the record that The Red Turtle is quite simply breath taking and is a movie you should definitely make time to view and go out of your way to see if necessary. Consequently, I went into this movie knowing relatively little about it, and I think that’s the best possible way to go into it.
That should be enough recommendation, and saves you from reading the rest of this review.
The Red Turtle starts with a man being shipwrecked at sea, beaten by the ocean in the night he regains consciousness the next morning having washed up on a deserted tropical island. From there, the first half of the movie follows the man as he explores the island, it’s beaches, it’s bamboo forest, it’s rocky outcrop and sparse grassland. We see him play castaway, making efforts to survive but feeling the despair and hopelessness of isolation.
There is no Wilson.
Utilising the island’s bamboo forest, the man builds himself a series of rafts to escape the island and take his chances on the open ocean. Unfortunately he only gets so far, before an unseen sea creature bashes his raft to pieces and he is forced to swim back to the island. This happens time and time again, until he sees the culprit of his misery – the gigantic red turtle of the film’s title.
Beaten back to the island, the man sees the Red Turtle clambering out of the beach onto the sand. The man takes out his anger against the creature, hits it on the head with a stick and turns it over onto it’s back, a position where it cannot move. Over time, the man realises the extent of his actions over this dumb creature and attempts to revive it, realising sadly that it has died.
But then something magical happens, from death comes a metamorphosis, the dead turtle turns into this woman. The man is suddenly no longer alone on the island and suddenly gains a reason to stay and make the most of his previously hopeless situation.
Whilst hand drawn animation has been largely replaced by all-CG productions in Western cinema over the last decade, Studio Ghibli have been flying the flag for hand drawn since the 80s with a run of animated features that have rivalled Pixar in their greatness. Being a mongrel mix of Japanese and European animation talent, The Red Turtle looks amazing but feels distinct from anything that has come from Studio Ghibli.
I suppose it reminded me most of all those old Tintin books I read as a child. All the visuals at once feel very realistic, but the facial features of the human characters are simplified as with Herge’s books. It’s an animation style that works so effectively because it’s universal. When Spielberg tackled TinTin in 2011, he did so earnestly, but the fatal flaw was making the cartoon characters have realistic human like features, that just created a creepy sense of the uncanny valley, which meant the audience could never really connect with the characters. The Red Turtle reminds you how animation can get away with comparatively less detail. We project ourselves on to the faces of the characters in front of us.
Raymond Briggs also feels like a big influence. At times the screen is very still and sparse, it is only the human characters who are being animated and are attracting our attention as they navigate across static backdrops. Certainly in the earlier stages of the movie, it creates a level of hopelessness, this timeless island paradise largely indifferent to the man struggling to exist upon it. The sky is able to go from being this very tropical blue to this brooding rough looking charcoal colouring to indicate an oncoming storm. At night, the film becomes almost monochrome that at once enchants and creates again a feeling of isolation and despair, the feeling that we are trapped on this island prison.
The use of music in particular feels almost like the Snowman in places, amplifying the motion and emotion with a sweeping orchestral score, that could tell the story on it’s own.
You could also point to those magnificent initial 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up as an inspiration. As the Red Turtle turns from becoming this story about a man marooned on a desert island to this love story between a man and a woman going through the motions of spending the rest of their lives together, charting all the ups and downs of a life together.
The Red Turtle is a movie of great allegorical substance and poetry. You could dive deep into the symbolism of the movie, the biblical undertones of Adam and Eve and Eden. The idea of peacefully co-existing with Nature. Perhaps you can question whether it’s all a product of the man’s imagination, trying to find a meaningful existence on this hopeless island in the middle of the ocean. As a piece of fiction, it’s all these things. It’s whatever we choose it to be.
For me, it’s a treatise on man’s journey through life. The first half he’s struggling to survive on this desolate island seeped in the forever cycle of life and death, destruction and creation, hopefulness and hopelessness. Situations out of his control place him on this island, there’s an almost youthful sense of defiance as he repeatedly attempts to escape it. There is anger and despair as he slowly realises he has no control over his situation. As we approach the second act, a benign acceptance of his fate takes place which rewards him a future with this woman who comes seemingly out of nowhere. He makes the most of his life on this island that at first appeared so unbearable. Yet disaster still strikes from time to time, threatening everything, but it is through his trust in others that he survives.
A Guardian review described the film as being a transcendental experience. And I think that’s it. The Red Turtle is a meditation of sorts. It’s about a man forced into this hopeless situation, but a situation he must come to terms with and accept, a situation he must rise above to create a happier existence for himself. It does all this without any conventional dialogue, just beautiful hand drawn visuals and a sweeping orchestral soundtrack.
The Red Turtle is an enchanting experience. A pure dichotomy between visuals and music that chronicles all the big meaningful beats of human existence without uttering a single word. It creates a very Xen experience. As with life, there is as much sadness and hopelessness as there is laughter, happiness and profundity. A stoic reminder on the power of animation and cinema in general.