While you may have heard of one the production companies that worked on The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli, chances are you’ve never heard of the film’s Director: Michaël Dukok de Wit. I certainly had never heard of him before. But that’s not surprising when you realize that The Red Turtle is de Wit’s first feature-length film. Before Red Turtle, de Wit had only animated and directed shorts, most of which you’ve probably never seen (I know I haven’t). As result of de Wit’s lack of recognition, marketing here in North America is definitely pushing the Studio Ghibli connection. Which while it makes sense is kind of a shame, because while The Red Turtle is certainly a stunning piece of animation, it’s not a Studio Ghibli film. But don’t take that as a criticism of the movie, If anything, calling the movie a Studio Ghibli title risks muddling the breath-taking simplicity and charm of The Red Turtle. So while I may have gone in thinking I saw something akin to a new Ghibli project, what I got was something far more special.
The Red Turtle‘s premise is like it’s art style: clean, beautiful, and understands the power of simplicity. The film opens with a man lost at sea in the middle of a storm. After finding a piece of debris, presumably from his sunken ship, he ends up stranded on a deserted island. Covered in plants and docile wildlife, it actually seems like a veritable paradise. But while he’s got plenty of food and a pool of fresh water to drink from, he understandably wants to get off and back to civilization. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. As he attempts to get away, each raft he makes is destroyed by the titular red turtle. I’m going to avoid talking about further spoilers, but as time goes by, he ends up meeting a mysterious woman who he falls in love with, forgetting his old life. Elaborating further on the story would ruin the surprises that the movie has in store, but needless to say that despite its complexity it packs an emotional punch. I’ll admit that it might be a bit slow for some viewers, wondering why nothing seems to be happenning. But these moments of “stillness” and the sudden bursts of action in between to me reflect an actual portrayal of someone truly stranded and cut off from the world. I inevitably drew comparisons to Castaway starring Tom Hanks, which while a fantastic film feels wrong to me now after seeing our protagonist face hardship on this mysterious island trapped by a giant red turtle.
Because there’s essentially no dialogue, the film relies entirely on the visuals to convey even the smallest of details between the characters. In between all the moments of serenity and natural chaos that comes from living on a tropical island, we the audience are given a feast for the senses. Everything from a crab scuttling along the deserted beach to convey the island’s isolation to the sound of heavy rain in the bamboo forest puts us right next to our castaway, our feet sinking into the muddy earth. I had chills down my spine and could feel every emotion coming off of these characters in waves rather than just only comprehending what was happening on screen. This is particularly the case during some dream sequences where (again without giving too much away) you feel that even your sanity is unhinging like the man’s own. The Red Turtle’s blend of harsh reality and these surreal dreams conveys what most probably go through in similar situations, or least what I imagine they’d go through.
This collective silence of these characters is one of the main reasons why I said that The Red Turtle isn’t really a Ghibli film, or at least not in the conventional sense. It pushes our boundaries of what an animated feature can do, similar to several of Ghibli’s other masterpieces. But its reliance on animation rather than words to tell the story makes each action more poignant. In a traditional Ghibli film, you’d have tons of dialogue to play off the fantastic setting, possibly with the man meeting all kinds of characters in his attempts to get back home. But The Red Turtle isn’t that kind of movie. Instead what we have is a gorgeous story about loss, love, nature, and family that doesn’t have a single word said, apart from the odd shout.
As a side note, I should point out that The Red Turtle also knows exactly when to use music to enhance a scene, rather than rely on it to set the mood. Again, this is the film relying on the visuals and having everything else come secondary.
There’s not much else for me to say about The Red Turtle, not because it lacks substance but it is beautiful beyond words. Writing this piece I tried to come up with more points of criticism to undermine my own love for this film. The problem is that I really had trouble doing that. It goes without saying that this movie isn’t going to be for everyone, especially if you’re going in thinking you’re going to get Spirited Away. But what I do hope is that if you do see it, you’ll feel just as immersed in The Red Turtle as I did.