The Red Turtle is a beautiful, moving film. It has that rare ability to make you ache and weep not because of tragedies that befall the characters, but just because of its virtuoso combination of story, image, and sound. I put away my pen and paper fifteen minutes in and just let it wash over me.
Ten years in the making, The Red Turtle is Studio Ghibli’s first-ever international collaboration, as well as the first-ever feature film for Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit, who has made a name for himself with award-winning short films and commercials. Dudok de Wit wrote the screenplay with French director and screenwriter Pascale Ferran, with famed Ghibli veteran Toshio Suzuki serving as a producer.
The film has no dialogue, a fact that I hesitate to emphasize for fear that it will keep some viewers away. Suffice it to say that this choice detracts nothing and adds plenty. Though it’s common for short films, especially short animated films, to be free of dialogue, feature films outside the arthouse circuit seem to require words, often to their detriment. I recall Roger Ebert’s disappointment with the very average Disney movie Dinosaur, which featured a dazzling opening sequence of an egg traveling over stunningly realistic landscapes before falling into the hands of a lemur, who then opens her mouth to speak and turns the movie into standard talking animal fare. Similar complaints were voiced about Wall-E, which had a lyrical, otherworldly quality that was disrupted when its characters started talking. With The Red Turtle, for once, the spell is never broken, and the story is simple and timeless enough that no words are needed.
I was a little horrified to learn that it almost didn’t happen this way. During a post-screening talk, Dudok de Wit admitted that he originally wrote several lines of dialogue in the middle of the film and recorded them, feeling that certain plot points required explanation. After some back-and-forth with Ghibli, the studio finally convinced him that the dialogue was unnecessary and awkward, and it was removed. Which just goes to show that great art is as much about listening to people you trust as it is about creating something meaningful.
The less said about the story of The Red Turtle the better, because one of the true joys of the film is watching it unfold and having no real idea where it’s going (though if you’ve read a few Japanese or European folk tales you can probably guess). It opens with a man fighting terrifying waves in a storm and washing up on a deserted island, where he eventually encounters a mysterious red turtle. There are echoes of Urashima Taro, and the frequent Ghibli themes of familial love and the human connection to nature feature strongly. Depending on your perspective, you might choose to see the story as a myth and the island as a sort of magical universe unto itself, but though there are threads of the mystical, the heart of the story is simply the interactions and life cycles of humans, animals, and the natural world around them.
Though there’s no dialogue, Dudok de Wit made a point of recording the sounds of the characters breathing throughout the film, as well as occasionally grunting, laughing, or gasping. Their faces, with simple black dots for eyes, tiny noses, and straight lines for mouths, recall Georges Remi’s Tintin comics. Instead of conveying emotion through facial expressions, Dudok de Wit says he attempted to show it through a combination of breathing and body language. He admits that part of this was practical–it’s extremely difficult and time-consuming in animation to show emotion through a character’s facial expressions. But it was also out of a desire to show these characters as tiny elements in a much larger landscape. By almost never showing us a close-up of their faces, we’re forced to focus on the vastness of the world that surrounds them.
There are so many moments of great beauty and power that it’s hard to single any of them out. I enjoyed the motif of a group of sand crabs that act as a sort of silent Greek chorus, scampering back and forth across the screen and bearing witness to everything the man on the island experiences. There are a lot of shots of the man simply staring out over the ocean, but so many different versions of it–red at sunset, filled with a thousand stars at night, bright blue in the daytime, surreal in his occasional dream sequences. The island itself is its own character, with its bamboo forest, little pools of fresh water, steep cliffs, and unexpected shifts from comforting to menacing. Dudok de Wit apparently spent quite a bit of time on an island in the Seychelles and collected thousands of photos of clouds, beaches, and fauna to create the island. (Another interesting detail: no palm trees, which the director felt would look too familiar and call up images of resorts.)
Though the imagery is powerful, The Red Turtle is truly held together by its human characters. Without giving away too much about who they are and where they come from, I can say that they’re at times inscrutable but also completely relatable, their joys and struggles played out against an Eden-like backdrop that has the potential to turn deadly when they least expect it. In their silence, they convey so much with a few seconds of dancing, an anxious gasp, or a hand caressing a face. They’re small figures in a giant landscape, but the bigness of their story fills the screen.
Dudok de Wit says that he never set out to make a “Ghibli film.” Rather, when Ghibli asked him to collaborate, it seems that they had seen themselves in his work (in particular his beautiful short film Father and Daughter) and trusted that he would make a film that fit within the Ghibli ouevre. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether The Red Turtle is a Ghibli film or a Dudok de Wit film–it’s a stunning piece of art and a moving, timeless story, one that I urge anyone who loves great animation and great storytelling to see.