The dialogue-less film follows the major life stages of a castaway on a deserted tropical island populated by turtles, crabs and birds.
The Red Turtle begins with our nameless protagonist struggling for life. He’s adrift in the middle of a huge storm, massive waves filling the screen while rain pelts down and he clings to wreckage to survive. Things don’t improve all that much when he’s washed ashore on a desert island. It’s large enough to support life – so long as he manages to avoid being trapped in the crevices along the shore – but what kind of life could he have all alone on a small island with the beach crabs his only companions? Luckily there’s plenty of bamboo growing inland, so making a raft is a relatively straightforward task. But every time he tries to leave the island a mysterious force attacks him from below, shattering his vessel. What’s holding him back?
Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit won an Oscar in 2001 for his short film Father and Daughter, which brought him to the attention of renowned Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli. The result is Studio Ghibli’s first co-production with an outsider, and it’s easy to see what brought them together: like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, The Red Turtle is as much about the world of the characters as the characters themselves, taking place on a lushly created island so detailed we come to know its streams and rocky crevices as intimately as those who live there – including the crabs, whose antics serve as a kind of comedy Greek chorus.
The island's gorgeous to look at, but that beauty hides a darker side – and that’s just as true for The Red Turtle.
Dudok’s style owes more to the European “clear line” tradition of cartooning (think Tintin) than Studio Ghibli’s wide-eyed work. The characters are rarely brought to the fore; there’s no dialogue and close-ups are kept to a minimum. Instead we observe them in context, with the island or the sea always present around them. It makes for an often breathtakingly beautiful film – Dudok sketched the backgrounds using charcoal on paper, based on hundreds of photos he took on a visit to the Seychelle Islands – but it also constantly reminds us that we’re observing this story from the outside. It’s about a man dealing with his environment rather than his own internal issues, even when what’s around him moves towards the fantastic, and his emotional journey is often deeply moving even when he’s standing still.
With such a solid grounding, the story’s eventual turn towards more mythical material feels perfectly reasonable. Whether what happens – let’s just say he’s given a good reason to settle down and make a life on the island – is a dream, an allegory, or just the kind of thing that happens on desert islands when no-one else is around doesn’t matter. Each twist and turn flows effortlessly from what’s come before, and even when that leads to some strange places it’s always anchored firmly in the reality of the island.
It’s a sign of Dudok’s skill (and of his co-scriptwriter, French director Pascale Ferran), that while the settings here are beautifully animated the island itself never comes across as a simple paradise. Even when our protagonist seems content to stay we’re aware that the island is in some ways a prison, and a dangerous one at that; a major dramatic sequence is built around a tidal wave and the destruction in its wake. The island’s gorgeous to look at, but that beauty hides a darker side – and that’s just as true for The Red Turtle.