The Red Turtle is an animated dream, a transcendent work of beautiful, heart-rending art from Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit that features no dialogue but speaks volumes of humanity, an indefatigable spirit and mankind’s inter-relationship with nature.
Ostensibly a story of survival, this fusion of sound, image and allegory is bursting with meaning, emotion and a wealth of lessons on the essence of existence. Timeless and universal, what begins as a tale of shipwreck, isolation and helplessness will undergo a magical metamorphosis to a mythical love story, a meditation on reincarnation, rebirth and creation. All this in eighty superlative minutes. The deafening roar of a raging sea, splintering rowboat panels, gentle light cast and wind flowing between a forest of bamboo, the cry of seabirds high overhead and rustling foliage are acutely felt as lush desert island is tentatively explored.
From its first moments, The Red Turtle is a captivating ultra-sensory experience; sounds are crisp and images are hand-drawn perfection. There is tenderness in the pitter-patter sound of baby turtles taking to the water for the first time, humour in a group of mischievous crabs who pester an increasingly weary dark-haired castaway as he builds one, two and then three rafts. Frayed linen trousers are exchanged for seal skin, a more sturdy substitute. There is a constant process of evolution and adaptation but as his beard grows longer, so does his patience wear thin. Each attempted escape from the island is thwarted by an initially unseen aggressor beneath the waves.
Why does the titular turtle prevent his flight? Exasperated cries ring out but help is not on the horizon. Dudok de Wit dives into the imagination of his protagonist through dreamscapes. His prone sleeping profile on the beach mirrors the shape of the island as he soon becomes at one with his surroundings but a quartet of wigged classical musicians appear on the beach as an exhausted, delusional mind creates impossible visions. It is a shocking, inhumane act that threatens to upset the fragile balance here but gives rise to remorse and through sincere penance, the reward of new life. To say more risks spoiling this picture book masterpiece but the non-verbal communication of those characters with whom we spend the latter chapters is spellbinding.
Alternating moods come with colours that blend and contrast from luminescent turquoise to sombre greys and hair colours change with the seasons and passing of time. Visual shifts in tone evoke the peaks and troughs of this figure’s plight and rises in strings cascade with the force of sea swells, raising hairs on the back of necks and bringing salty tears to eyes. The Red Turtle is a work of art as universal in theme and reach as diverse as the French, Japanese and Dutch influences of its production. It delights in the symbiosis of man and nature, and the circle of life we all share.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens