A pointed simplicity governs The Red Turtle, one that’s typical of many survival tales. Watching the film, viewers may wonder why a man must become shipwrecked in order to discover the pleasing, reciprocal catch-and-release of existing in sync with his habitat. The filmmakers aren’t interested in the danger of washing up on a deserted island though, and they aren’t exactly drawn to the innovations or evolutions necessary for a presumably first-world male to exist in such a landscape. The Red Turtle isn’t Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away, as it’s after metaphorical game of a different stripe.
Director Michael Dudok de Wit is drawn to transcendental refinement, seeking to provide us refuge from the excess of our world, offering an animated film that serves as a coincidental complement to recent articles boasting of the need to own less in these imperiled times. The filmmaker also quietly refutes the debauched cynicism of the mainstream American children’s film, which is neurotically terrified of boring audiences, abounding in frenetic CGI images and jokey paeans to proper reproduction and consumerism, with a twist of topicality to smooth our politically correct hair in place.
There are no frills in The Red Turtle. The film’s protagonist, a young man on an island, has no name. There’s no dialogue, except for a few guttural exclamations. Moment to moment, there doesn’t appear to be a plot in a traditional sense, though the cumulative shape of the film reveals a symmetry that might be indebted to the work of Yasujirō Ozu. The animation is reminiscent of the films of producer Studio Ghibli, though even more pared, with the foreground and background of images often demarcated by a boldly direct line of horizon, of the sort that one might learn to draw in an introductory sketching class. Splashes of big, bright colors often dominate the frame, using symbolism that any child will recognize: green for the forest of the trees, blue for the ocean, a sandy off-white for the beach.
These techniques slow down our biorhythms, lulling us into a quasi-dream state that magnifies our sensitivity. We’re allowed to revel in textures so broad they acquire a paradoxical subtlety, with recurring notes and flourishes, such as the crabs that serve as the man’s Greek chorus, or the multi-appendage-d worm that crawls over his feet. Gestures are imbued in The Red Turtle with resounding power. When a giant red sea turtle swims up to the man as he pushes away from the island on a raft, we’re open to the animal’s majesty, its otherness conveying a sense of awesome and beautiful mystery. The turtle thwarts the man’s escape efforts, though its face has been etched with lines that convey poignant, matter-of-fact benevolence.
The man is alone, terrified, and trying to rejoin humanity, and so the turtle’s actions enrage him. One day, he sees the turtle struggling on the beach and commits a shocking act of aggression: He hits the animal over the head with a reed he’s fashioned from the bamboo trees that grow in the nearby forest, and flips the turtle over on its back and contemptuously jumps on its chest. This scene is tame as far as on-screen violence goes, but our guard has been relaxed by Dudok de Wit’s formal ingenuity, by the peacefulness of the realm and by the ageless grace of the turtle. The man isn’t evil or callous, and he soon regrets his actions, attempting to shelter the beached turtle from the punishing sun, giving it water and kindness. His remorse is rewarded, revealing The Red Turtle to be an existential fairy tale: The turtle turns into a gorgeous and tender red-headed woman, and the two forge a classical nuclear-familial life in a place that evolves from prison to paradise.
In the end, though, you may miss the turtle, which brings to mind what Marlene Dietrich famously said about the beast in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. For a while, one may wonder if the woman is a hallucination of the man’s—a way for him to evade his guilt while quelling his isolation. After all, he’s had other hallucinations, which are color-coded in black and white, though the film’s ending could be said to argue against this fantastic interpretation. Either way, the man’s one murderous impulse begets a life of empathy—of balance. A heartbreaking, astonishingly poetic ending further challenges our human-centric absorption, suggesting that this rhapsodic life of paradise wasn’t the man’s dream, but the turtle’s.