A touching animated ode to the cycle of life.
The Red Turtle offers a fable so simple and resonant that you wonder how it hasn’t been told before. Directed and co-written by Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit (who previously won an Academy Award for his short film Father and Daughter), the film explores the meaning of life in the sparest, most graceful way imaginable, stripping away all dialogue and communicating with its audience on a purely audiovisual level. Its elegant symbolism and complete lack of superfluous elements sometimes makes it feel like an adaptation of a series of ancient cave drawings, though there are fleeting moments that reveal this is a tale of the modern era.
The film begins with a man who has been stranded on a deserted island. Based on the hallucinatory visions he occasionally experiences (including a mirage featuring a well-dressed string quartet), we know he has experienced civilized society and wishes to return that life. The fresh fruit and water on the island allows him to survive, but he wishes to escape. He builds a raft out of bamboo, but his repeated attempts to leave are thwarted by a large red turtle that keeps wrecking his rafts before he can get very far from the island. The man is furious. Why won’t the turtle let him leave? Is it simply doing this for its own amusement?
From here, there are things that happen that dramatically change the entire shape and tone of the film, though I dare not reveal the details to you. I will say that as the story progresses, other characters enter the film. The man is eventually joined by a woman, and given that they are the only two people on the island, it isn’t long before they are joined by a child. What began as a Robinson Crusoe-esque tale of survival morphs into something richer and fuller: a meditation on man’s relationship with nature, an acknowledgment of the limitations life imposes, a exploration of paternal fears, an appreciation of the resilience and curiosity of youth. It’s a film about the process of growing and learning as we move through life, and about the importance of building on those lessons as you go wherever life takes you.
The film is co-produced by the great Studio Ghibli, though the characters here are far removed from the charming, immediately distinctive figures that often populate their films. Dudok de Wit makes the characters as plain and featureless as possible while retaining his painterly animation style, presenting them as blank slates that we can fill with our own experiences and feelings. This is a film that will play differently for each person who sees it, depending on what chapter of life they are in and to what degree they concur with the film’s assertions about what matters in life (one’s tolerance for meditative, dialogue-free art films will also have a significant impact on the film’s effectiveness).
However, the film is more gripping and more emotionally direct than it initially appears. The film’s raw beauty – enhanced considerably by a gorgeous score from Laurent Perez Del Mar – lulls you into a sense of security, giving the moments of peril that appear a genuinely shocking quality (on multiple occasions, I found myself holding my breath as various characters were placed in danger). Late in the film, there’s a tsunami sequence that generates both awe-inspiring visuals and an abundance of tension. These occasional moments have a way of adding new waves of perspective to this affecting, insightful film. It requires a bit more patience than other Studio Ghibli films (even something like The Wind Rises), but its power sneaks up on you.
The Red Turtle (Blu-ray) serves up a stunning 1080p/1.85:1 transfer which fully captures the grace and beauty of Dudok de Wit’s remarkable animation. Detail is remarkable throughout, and black levels are deep and inky. Colors are considerably more muted here than in your typical animated feature, but that’s by design – the image has been faithfully preserved. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is even richer, capturing some truly immersive sound design and presenting the score with rich, full-bodied clarity. Supplements include an audio commentary with Dudok de Wit, a making-of documentary (“The Birth of The Red Turtle”), a featurette (“The Secrets of The Red Turtle”), an AFI Fest Q&A and a trailer.
The Red Turtle is one of the great animated films of recent years: a remarkable, elegant exploration of the meaning of life. A must-see.