‘Red Turtle’ a wonderful, wordless animated parable

Feb 15, 2017
The animation in “The Red Turtle” was created with Cintiq, a digital pen. Contributed by Sony Pictures Classics

Dutch-born writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit has a distinct minimalist sensibility that shines throughout his first feature-length animated film, “The Red Turtle.”

This sensibility includes the elimination of any dialogue; an unobtrusive but effective score from Laurent Perez del Mar; and a simple animated style that was created with Cintiq, a digital pen that “allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor,” as Dudok de Wit puts it.

That’s not to say, however, that the animation is simplistic. The film includes incredible moments of dark animation, including the opening scene where a man is being pushed under the ocean by massive waves, struggling to get back to the surface, over and over.

And that’s where the story starts, with the same man waking up on a deserted tropical island. Unlike most stories dealing with such isles, however, “The Red Turtle” is not as much about how someone goes about surviving the situation. Instead, it’s about how someone copes emotionally with the isolation, the longing, the loss.

In that regard, “The Red Turtle” isn’t meant to be taken literally. Rather, it’s a parable about the cycle of life, about the dreams of finding meaning, about the possibility of a future. There are no flashbacks to tell you the castaway’s story — only a couple of hallucinations that offer clues. So what you’re facing here is a blank slate, where the moviegoer can interpret as he or she wishes.

Without giving too much away, the unnamed castaway repeatedly tries to get off the island by building a raft and sailing away, as crabs watch his every move, seemingly offering commentary on the futility without ever saying a word.

The castaway’s nemesis? A big red turtle that swims into the raft every time and sinks the castaway’s getaway plans.

And then one day, the castaway slowly meets and woos a woman. Her arrival might require a suspension of belief in normal circumstances, but Dudok de Wit is so careful in his storytelling that all of it seems possible. Eventually, they have a son. They tell their histories to their son without words but by drawing in the sand. And as the son grows up, he experiences the same dangers that the father faced upon confronting the island and nature — and the same challenges and longings.

All of this takes its time, in a somewhat leisurely manner that will probably not be appealing to U.S. youth so accustomed to rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and snappy repartee in their animated films.

But “The Red Turtle” is not boring. It has several thrilling scenes, including one where a tsunami sweeps over the isle.

Dudok de Wit was approached by Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli to make this animated feature-length film after producers there saw his 2000 Oscar-winning short, “Father and Daughter.” As it turns out, Dudok de Wit’s sensibilities are not that far removed from those who brought us such animated classics as “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away.”

In short, “The Red Turtle” is a lovely, simple, universal tale about loss and longing. It won a special jury prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where it played in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and is nominated for an Academy Award in the animated feature film category. If you see it, you’ll understand why.