The natural inclination after watching the Oscar-nominated, timeless, and slightly surrealistic The Red Turtle is to wonder what centuries-old mythology serves as its source material. In truth, this wordless story of a castaway on a deserted island came from the mind of the director, Michael Dudok de Wit, who won an Academy Award for his charcoal-drawn, 2000 animated short Father and Daughter. Turned into a screenplay by Pacale Ferran, The Red Turtle (Dudok de Wit’s first feature) has the feel of a plainly told, ancient fable that combines very human feelings of isolation, love and despair with more fantastical elements, including one involving a massive red turtle that turns into a female companion for our unnamed protagonist.
Since there is no dialogue, the story gives us almost no background on how this man ended up on the sea in the first place, or who he was and what sort of life he lived before that. We’re shown a small handful of nightmarish sequences involving things he may have seen on his vessel, but we have no way of knowing if these are memories or warped distortions of a life that he will likely never see again. Dudok de Wit manages to find wonderful drama and humor in the island’s smallest details, including interactions with small hermit crabs, birds, coconut trees, and most significantly, in the man’s building of a series of rafts and his repeated failed attempts to get off the island.
With each trip beyond the sand bars surrounding the island, something under the water attacks his raft, destroying it and forcing him to swim back to the island. Eventually he discovers that the cause of his anguish is the titular animal, and he takes his frustrations out on the creature by flipping it onto its back and beating it with a stick. Instantly regretting this, the man attempts to revive the turtle, which leads to its shell cracking, and eventually it transforms into a woman (as all giant red turtles do?).
The Red Turtle is the first non-Japanese work to be co-produced by legendary animation house Studio Ghibli, and while this film pushes the limits of the studio’s mostly kid-friendly offerings, it’s still safe for most ages as long as you aren’t easily offended or confused by the implications of a man and a woman (who used to be a turtle) having a child. But the tale’s more far-reaching implications are infinitely more interesting. Is this Dudok de Wit’s reworking of the Adam and Eve story? In the end, it doesn’t actually matter because, in its current form, it allows audiences to interpret this modern myth however they choose, using whatever baggage and beliefs they bring to the table. This could be a religious allegory, or a tribute to the endless possibilities of nature, or fantasy for fantasy’s sake. Knowing the director to be an expert craftsman and sublime storyteller, it’s likely a little of each…or none of the above.
The animation style of The Red Turtle clearly wishes to emphasize the natural world over the humans present in it. The character designs are so simple as to reduce their faces to two dots for eyes, a V-shaped nose, and a simple line for a mouth. While the surroundings—the sky, ocean, plant life, even the sand—are given depth and brought to life with warm colors. The artistry at work is undeniable, and never more spectacular than during a world-leveling tsunami sequence in the final third of the film. Dudok de Wit and his small army of European-based animators make utter destruction look as awe-inspiring as it is devastating.
The Red Turtle’s deliberate pacing might test the limits of restless younger children, but with a brisk 80-minute running time, it’s unlikely anyone’s patience will be tested. If anything, the film’s lack of concrete explanations for some of its stranger elements may result in a barrage of questions from younger viewers (after the film, preferably), to which any right-thinking adult should respond “Well, what do you think it meant?” Dudok de Wit is an intelligent enough filmmaker to understand that by giving viewers as little information as possible about how and why his story unfolds, he’s encouraging people (in particular, families) to engage, question, project upon, and converse about this magnificently realized work.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.