The dialogue-less film follows the major life stages of a castaway on a deserted tropical island populated by turtles, crabs and birds.
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Writers: Michael Dudok de Wit (story), Pascale Ferran (screenplay)
The Red Turtle starts with a Studio Ghibli logo, but not the one we’re used to. The line drawing of Totoro is present and correct, but the background colour, rather than the customary spring-sky blue, is a bright and rosy red – signalling the film is not part of the Ghibli canon, but a co-production.
In fact, it’s the famously guarded Japanese studio’s first ever, commissioned after Father and Daughter, the Oscar-winning 2000 short film made by the London-based Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, became an in-house Ghibli favourite.
“Familiar but different” is a perfect description of Dudok de Wit’s mesmerising debut feature even if you’ve never seen the Ghibli logo before in your life. It begins, elegantly but straightforwardly, as the tale of a lone castaway surviving on a desert island. No prologue, context, or even names: in the film’s opening shots, our anonymous hero is already being tossed in mountainous waves.
Soon, though, his story blooms into something more mysterious and meditative – and though there isn’t a single word of dialogue in the film’s 80-minute running time, the big questions it asks, about ambition, acceptance and the beauty of companionship, ring loud in every heart-melting frame.
Dudok de Wit co-wrote the film’s story with the French filmmaker Pascale Ferran – and it has something of Ferran’s 2014 film Bird People in the way it adventurously links isolation and freedom. Yet the goings-on on the island itself have a recognisable Ghibli flavour – and that studio’s co-founder, Isao Takahata, director of Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, served as The Red Turtle’s artistic producer.
To say too much about the titular turtle itself – other than that it’s red, and very big, and takes a little while to show up – would be to give away one of the film’s central mysteries. The creature isn’t exactly Baloo, but its connection to the bare necessities of life is the softly purring motor for the second half of the film.
Throughout, Dudok de Wit mixes and matches hand and computer-drawn animation techniques, and eastern and western art styles. The trees’ foliage is a work of intricate penmanship, but the wind that sets it rustling is CGI.
The influence of the European ligne claire drawing style, pioneered by Hergé, the creator of Tintin, is evident in the castaway’s ink-dot eyes and fine-nibbed nose, while the scrupulous balance of the frame owes something to the floating world of Japanese ukiyo-e prints.
There are occasional passages of high-stakes drama – early on, the man gets stuck in an underwater tunnel, and though the sequence has no dramatic music or tension-building close-ups, it’s still stiflingly tense.
But for the most part, the film is about the man slowly adapting to the island’s own enigmatic rhythms and processes: the baby turtles that flap down the beach at night, the tiny crabs scuttling over the sand, the curtains of rain that swish through bamboo groves.
It’s a tough place – but also, you gradually discover, a generous one. One of the baby turtles that doesn’t make it to the sea is dragged away by one of the crabs, and a tragic death becomes a hearty dinner.
Dudok de Wit’s compassionate, wistfully beautiful film reminds you that the net output of the nature machine is always life.
– Robbie Collin, The Telegraph