The Red Turtle, 2016.
Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.
Featuring the voice talents of Emmanuel Garijo, Barbara Beretta, Tom Hudson, Baptiste Goy and Axel Deville.
A man is washed up on a desert island. It looks like paradise, but he needs to escape. He builds a raft and starts to sail away when something unseen destroys the craft and he has to swim back to land. Several more attempts end in exactly the same way until he discovers his adversary. A giant red turtle. And when the animal ventures onto the island, the man decides to take his revenge.
Michael Dudok de Wit’s latest animation, and his first full length feature, is a co-production with the legendary Studio Ghibli. That, by itself, raises expectations long before the lights dim and as soon as they do, we’re engulfed in a vicious storm at sea. Towering, never-ending waves roar in our ears and, just occasionally, there’s a glimpse of a small, human figure, bobbing around in the water. A solitary rowing boat offers sanctuary, but seconds later it’s shattered. Will he survive?
After the storm comes peace, with the man washed ashore on a desert island, one populated by a group of small, inquisitive crabs and with a mountain, vegetation and fresh water. The man remains nameless and we never hear him speak, apart from the occasional grunt or shout of frustration as he tries to escape. That lack of dialogue is something of a de Wit feature – he used it in his Oscar-winning short, Father And Daughter (2000) – and it’s all part of the film’s minimalist style. There’s nothing superfluous, nothing that doesn’t belong and nothing that doesn’t make a contribution to telling the story with the maximum beauty and emotional impact.
The idea of being stranded on a desert island, from Robinson Crusoe to Tom Hanks being Cast Away, is a familiar one. As is somebody adrift at sea, as in Robert Redford’s All Is Lost. What they all have in common is wanting to escape or to be rescued. And de Wit is so fascinated by the experience of being stranded, he gives us a castaway who can’t stand the solitude, but fails to get away every time. Because what he doesn’t understand is that the red turtle is telling him something. The island is where he’s meant to be.
After the turtle lumbers out of the sea and dies, the story takes a turn towards the mystical. A red-headed woman appears, bringing man and nature much closer than before. The man loses the desire to leave the island and he and the woman have a son, who grows up blissfully unaware of anything beyond the sea. Life is idyllic, if hard – and then it’s shattered. As we saw at the start, this is no paradise and a tsunami destroys the entire landscape. It doesn’t just take your breath away. It stops it.
The film is stunning in its simplicity and beauty, with its hand drawn animation and a muted colour palette that makes the turtle stand out all the more. And it’s the simplicity of its storytelling, coupled with that pared down style, that makes what we’re watching so incredibly moving.
If you like, The Red Turtle is a circle of life story, but let’s not go into Lion King territory. This is more elegant and more subtle, combining precision with a magical mysticism reinforcing the bond between man, his environment and the creatures in it. If you can see through your tears at the end, it could be an allegory, or a dream but, most importantly of all, it’s deceptively simple, with themes as deep as the ocean and the capacity to move and stir like very few other films this year.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★