In his feature film debut, The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge), Dutch-British animator Michaël Dudok de Wit conjures up a gorgeous story exalting the wondrous complexity of nature and where humans fit in that picture. This dialogue-free film uses the archetypal story of a man surviving on a deserted island, but adds interesting twists to the basic formula. In lieu of conversation, the film relies on brilliant animation, sweeping orchestral cues, and allegorical storytelling to encourage the imagination of the audience to draw their own conclusions about man’s place in the world.
Much of the appeal of The Red Turtle is in the experience of watching certain plot elements unfold, so it is crucial to provide as few spoilers as possible. As previously mentioned, the film follows the structure of a man-on-a-deserted island akin to something like Cast Away, and we spend the first third of the film watching our protagonist struggle for food, water, and shelter as he plans his escape from the island by raft. Strangely, his raft never makes it too far off the shore, as it is mysteriously destroyed each time.
The film is incredibly patient, and confident enough in its pacing to allow the audience almost a firsthand exploration of the environment that it creates. The camera is languid. It rests on a group of crabs crawling over the sand, a few fish swimming in the ocean, or our protagonist collecting coconuts. Throughout the film we get the impression we’re surrounded by the natural world, both its overall serenity and the particularities of its harsh survival-of-the-fittest milieu. This sensation is compounded by the beautiful soundtrack, which imbues sequences of the film with a kind of sacredness.
It is impossible to recommend The Red Turtle enough. It is the product of a collaboration between the famed Studio Ghibli and European production studio Wild Bunch, but it has plenty of value beyond its pedigree. The animation dazzles, the plot is simple yet strange, and the entire construction of the story leaves a great deal open to interpretation. Hence, despite its lack of dialogue, The Red Turtle is a vivid and unabashed success.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage. The film opens in Toronto today.