“The Red Turtle”, an animation feature film co-produced by Wild Bunch and Studio Ghibli, looks as simple as its allegoric fantasy fable. Wholly driven by images and sounds without any dialogue during its 80-minute running time, this is surely your typical arthouse animation film, but it is quite an enchanting film filled with vivid, beautiful visual moments, and it is also surprisingly poignant as it later turns out to be more than a familiar survival tale.
During the opening scene, we see its nameless hero being helplessly drifted alone in the middle of the stormy ocean, and the next scene shows him waking up in a remote deserted island. The situation looks hopeless for him at first, but, fortunately, the island turns out to be pretty bountiful. He can easily get fresh water and fruit besides fish, and there is also a big bamboo forest which can provide enough material for building a raft for his escape from the island.
Leisurely observing his actions around the island, the film takes its time in establishing its mood and background. The day scenes in the film are filled with vivid colors, and that aspect is particularly exemplified well by those tall, green bamboos in the forest or the scenes tinged with reddish sunset light. In contrast, the night scenes are shown in a black-and-white style, and they also contribute to the dreamy overall atmosphere of the film.
The island comes to get a sort of personality as we look around the island along with our hero. We get accustomed to not only its bamboo forest but also other spots including its rock mound and a spring located inside the forest. We also notice several different animals inhabiting in the island, and we are amused by a flock of crabs which provide some little laughs in the background from time to time.
Once our hero finishes building the raft, he immediately tries to sail away from the island, but then the raft is destroyed by something in the sea. It blocks him again when he tries again, and then he discovers during the third attempt that it is a big red turtle, which blocks him as before but does not attack him for some reason.
Their conflict reaches to another peak when he happens to spot the turtle crawling on the shore. Feeling angry about the turtle, he attacks it without any hesitation and then comes to regret his impulsive action, but then a strange thing happens. The turtle is transformed into a beautiful woman, and that is followed by a silent but moving moment of forgiveness and acceptance between them. Although nothing is particularly emphasized, you may discern from that moment a lesson on how one can be peaceful with nature rather than fighting against it.
The second half of the film depicts their subsequent life on the island. They come to have a son a few years later, and they are happy together with him as he grows up along the passage of time. There is a tender scene in which they teach him a bit about their island and the world beyond it via their drawings on the sands, and then we get an awe-inspiring moment when he swims in the sea along with a bunch of turtles, with which he has formed some special relationship since he learned how to swim.
The film keeps serving us with other impressive visual moments to admire. There is a frightening moment involved with the unforgiving side of the ocean, and we see several harrowing sights of its aftermath. A crucial narrative turn later in the story is accompanied with bittersweet feelings coupled with the sense of inevitability, and then there comes the poetic finale which will haunt your mind for a long time as you reflect on the whole story.
The film is directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit, an acclaimed Dutch filmmaker who previously made several short animation films including “Father and Daughter” (2000). That short animation film, which won an Oscar in 2001, is about a girl waiting for her absent father to return, and I admired how it gradually built up its emotional impact via simple, dialogue-free storytelling and succinct hand-drawn animation style.
In his first animation feature film, Dudok de Wit shows the same confident handling of story and style observed in “Father and Daughter”. While the main characters are broadly drawn, the wordless interactions between the main characters are depicted with clarity and directness thanks to the economic storytelling of the screenplay by Dudok de Wit and his co-writer Pascale Ferran. The background details of the film are constantly rich and colorful as you can expect from an animation film co-produced by Studio Ghibli, and the sound design of the film is commendable for the effective utilization of various sounds of nature, while complementing well the restrained but lyrical score by Laurent Perez Del Mar on the soundtrack.
“The Red Turtle”, which received the Special Jury Prize award in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in last year and then nominated for Best Animation Feature Film Oscar early in this year, may require some patience from you, but you will enjoy its visual goodies a lot if you go along with its slow narrative pacing. I think it will be appreciated more by adult audiences, but it is also accessible to young audiences, and it will give them a refreshing experience a lot different from those run-of-the-mill digital animation films.