The Red Turtle begins with the familiar Totoro image that we have come to expect before every Studio Ghibli film, but something is different this time. The famous logo is red instead of blue, presumably in reference to the titular red turtle in the film, but also perhaps because this film is something a little different. Despite the great animation studio having been founded for over thirty years at this point, they have never made a co-production. Until now.
Those within Ghibli, namely Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, have been fans of director Michael Dudok de Wit’s work for some time, and in part thanks to their love of his Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter, they decided to partner with Wild Bunch to make a film with de Wit. The result is the eighty minute, dialogue-free – save for some shouts of “hey!” – The Red Turtle, a castaway picture that is a sublime achievement in both animation and storytelling.
The film opens with a storm at sea, bringing to mind Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’, as the waves form mountainous and impenetrable peaks. The main protagonist in The Red Turtle is lost in the waves, struggling to find a capsized boat. The storm rages on and he is eventually washed-up on a deserted island, where the remainder of the film takes place. He tries to escape, but his attempts are thwarted, and whilst the island is at first filled with dangers – a scene in which he is trapped in a pool of water down a cliff face is nail bitingly tense – it becomes his home.
He must accept this new life and become one with nature in order to survive and to live. To reveal what this literally means for the central character would give too much away of the film’s somewhat surprising and mythic plotting, but suffice to say things take a turn in a way that makes The Red Turtle feel like some long lost and great folk tale.
De Wit is not particularly interested in telling a significant story with regards to deep plotting, allowing all the significance to rest in the themes of the rather simple narrative and the way in which we connect with the main character and the life he is leading. This is bold, visual filmmaking that is about poignancy in subtle moments and grand ideas conveyed in microcosms.
The animation – a sort of computer assisted ‘hand-drawn’ approach – is exquisite, creating a world that is truly a feast for the eyes, despite the reasonably simplistic frames. De Wit’s style is beautifully minimalistic, but there’s the sense that each small element tells a far greater story. This minimalism, of course, is in keeping with the aforementioned lack of dialogue, something that encourages you to lean in more and gives the story so much room to breathe.
A contemplative film that allows you to consider so much about what may be being said, and to think about the way in which it relates to your life throughout, but you will still be mulling over the film’s many layers long after the credits have ended and Laurent Perez’ stunning and luscious score has been silenced.