The Red Turtle defies easy categorization. One of this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees, the first-time feature from Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit is an animated film co-produced by Japan’s storied Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), but possesses none of Ghibli’s stylistic hallmarks. It tells a simple story rendered in an art style that evokes children’s book illustrations, but it is not what most Americans would think of as a “kids’ movie.” It’s technically a foreign film, but it contains no dialogue, telling a universal story through music and images. It has magical elements, but is deeply rooted in the human experience.
It is, put simply, like no other animated movie you’re likely to see this year.
The Red Turtle is a desert-island fable
The setup for the film is one familiar from centuries of storytelling: After a raging storm tosses him from his boat, a man washes up on a deserted island. He searches the island for signs of human life, and finding none, begins to construct a raft to take him back to wherever he came from.
But we never discover where it is the nameless man came from — or when he came from. The Red Turtle eschews any indicators suggesting where on earth or in what time period the man’s story takes place. The tropical island he lands on is both literal and figurative, a discrete, isolated setting removed from the specifics of the larger world, a blank page on which Dudok de Wit sketches a broad but beautiful examination of human existence and the natural world.
The man is prevented from leaving the island by the film’s namesake, a giant red turtle who breaks apart his raft whenever he tries to set off to sea. But, as indicated by its unusual color, this is no ordinary turtle, and its insistence on foiling the man’s escape attempts is rooted in something greater than simple antagonism. The turtle eventually transforms into a red-haired woman, and she and the man have a child together — a boy who grows up with a natural connection to the island the man once tried so desperately to escape.
Outside of the red turtle’s transformation, the story proceeds in down-to-earth fashion, fixated more on its protagonists’ connection to their world and each other than the reasoning — logical or metaphorical — for its magical elements. The turtle may be what drives the story, but its existence is not the point, a distinction that positions The Red Turtle squarely in the realm of fable.
The film’s simple tale is secondary to its stunning visuals
Though The Red Turtle’s narrative stretches over many years, it is not especially complex or detailed; it’s not a movie that will leave you clutching your armrest as you wonder what’s going to happen next. The 81-minute film proceeds simply and deliberately from one understated event to the next, with precisely one scene that aims for — and achieves — edge-of-your-seat excitement. Despite its mythical elements, it is ultimately a quiet story, the sort of thing destined to be dismissed as boring by viewers who prefer constant narrative stimulation.
But the plot isn’t what’s exciting about The Red Turtle, nor is it the source of the film’s power. This is an exceedingly gorgeous film, utilizing color and light to evoke the emotions its characters never give voice to. Its vision of the natural world teems with energy and purpose; it’s both inviting and imposing, full of unexpected details and movement that vacillate between realism and light abstraction as the moment calls for.
The Red Turtle’s dynamic use of light and shadow in particular can be traced back to Dudok de Wit’s short films, like his 2000 Oscar-winner “Father and Daughter,” which is what brought him to the attention of Studio Ghibli in the first place. Ghibli co-founder and director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) helped Dudok de Wit expand his vision into a feature-length work, and his appreciation for eloquent details can be seen in the final product — though Dudok de Wit makes sure to clarify that neither he nor Takahata were emulating the look and feel of other Ghibli productions with The Red Turtle.
The Red Turtle’s art style is more in line with European animation than Japanese, its sketchily rendered characters with black-dot eyes evoking more through their movement and framing than their facial expressions. The film’s compositions in particular are incredible, often isolating the tiny human figures amid lush, imposing natural landscapes. The opening scene where the man struggles in the water during a huge storm is particularly breathtaking in this regard, but the film returns to this sort of framing again and again, to highlight its central theme of man’s place in the natural world.
That all makes The Red Turtle sound like more of an intellectual exercise than it is, though; this film is more of an emotional exercise, drawing visceral reactions from the viewer through visuals alone (with an assist from Laurent Perez Del Mar’s ever-present score). It’s a beautiful example of what animation as a medium is capable of, of what it can achieve that live-action storytelling cannot.