The Red Turtle tells the simple story of a nameless man who mysteriously becomes shipwrecked on a deserted island populated solely by small turtles and crabs after a particularly bad tropical storm. Day after day he must contend with nature to sate his basic survival needs, finding food, water, and most importantly, a way off the island. The man plans to escape the island by building a crude raft out of fallen tree trunks. Time and time again however, his efforts are thwarted by a mysterious large red turtle, who dismantles his raft every time he attempts to sail out. This continues until ambiguous circumstances lead to the man bonding with the titular red turtle, as he begins to find new meaning in the island.
What makes The Red Turtle such a breathtaking and beautiful film is the amount of emotion, drama, and story the film is able to convey to the audience with absolutely no dialogue (a few frustrated screams not withstanding). The Red Turtle relies solely on visual storytelling, and it does so fabulously. The small victories, the heartbreaking defeats, and everything in between are all effective, with the silence of the film serving only to emphasize the weight of the man’s experiences.
While the film technically lasts a brisk 80 minutes, due to the silent nature of the beast, every minute is thoroughly felt. The silence helps craft our castaway into a bit of a blank slate, easily allowing one to project themselves onto the character. We experience every trial and tribulation with the man, which allows his moments of fear and anguish to be all the more grueling. All of this emotionality is made all the more effective with Laurent Perez Del Mar’s wonderfully magical score helping drive every scene.
The relationship between the man and turtle is also exhibited wonderfully. The film is able to create a genuine sense of love and companionship between the two characters, all without a word of dialogue spoken. The connection the two have is immediately felt, and their story proves to be a compelling one.
The film crafts meaningful character arcs and relationships and it is all told purely through visuals. Many of the film’s events are left intentionally ambiguous and interpretative, never giving any singular event much literal meaning. There are exquisite dreamlike sequences, characters changing from turtles to people, and other similarly odd examples that make it difficult to pinpoint whether the events our protagonist is experiencing are real or fake.
This is director Michael Dudock de Wit’s debut feature film, and what a debut it is. He proves his mastery of cinematic language in his ability to portray themes such as man’s relationship with nature, birth and rebirth, and even puberty, all without a word spoken. These are heavy themes and concepts de Wit is handling, yet he is still able to inject much needed physical humor and levity into the film, without it feeling contrived. This humor mainly comes from a reoccurring troop of crabs that serve to help keep the stranded man company. While they are a comparatively small part of the film, I’d be remiss to not mention them.
All of this is achieved with the fantastic artistry from the animators that worked on the film. The Red Turtle is a unique joint effort between famed Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch, which explains the extreme aesthetic change from previous Ghibli films. The Red Turtle is exceedingly gorgeous. It exhibits an almost handcrafted quality in its animation style even though that is most certainly not the case. The film is digitally animated, yet it feels like it has a painter’s touch applied to every frame.
The Red Turtle is a marvelous achievement in every meaning of the word, crafting a harrowing story of love and survival in the most minimalist of ways. While Studio Ghibli is no longer under the inspiring leadership of the great Hayao Miyazaki, The Red Turtle has proven that they are more than capable in carrying on his astounding legacy, and will continue to do so.