The ‘man shipwrecked on a desert island’ scenario has been explored in manifold forms across film, TV and literature, and continues to fascinate human beings because it is a situation that we can easily picture ourselves in. Empathy for the stranded man is induced before we even learn his name, or find out anything about him; the development of his character is completely organic and led almost exclusively by his own actions. Writers love this kind of plot because the groundwork is already laid. They can start with the bare bones and build up, while basking in the ease granted by the minimalism of the setup.
The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) takes minimalism to another level. This is a film so stripped back, so pared down to its fundamentals that the experience of watching it turns into something transcendental, a kind of dreamy reverie. It manages, in its simplicity, to expose the barest elements of being human, staying alive, existing. It’s a film that any viewer, of any age and from any culture, will be affected by in some way.
The elements of the story – a man blocked from escaping his island prison by the titular red turtle, with which he forms an unusual bond – are grounded in a sense of mythology. It is co-produced by Studio Ghibli, whose films always feel wistfully mythological (perhaps because they are populated by lots of wise animals), but this time the traditional Ghibli style is fused with that of Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit, and it makes for a beautiful pairing. The skies and sands are rendered in vivid watercolours, whilst the monochrome landscapes of the night-time seem to swallow the frame into a starry abyss. Our protagonist is dwarfed by his ever-shifting surroundings; his slow decline into madness witnessed only by the beach’s other residents, a family of crabs each with personalities of their own.
The style of animation, particularly the movement of the characters as they swim and dance and forage, is breath-taking from start to finish. There are many frames and components that will leave you wondering ‘how did they do that?’ – and this sense of awe is to be savoured, because it is so rare now to see something on the screen that has not been seen before (particularly in animation). Studio Ghibli continues to innovate, pushing the boundaries of what is possible and doing something that feels truly daring.
And finally…let’s talk about the sound (the best should always be saved for last). From the opening moments until the credits rolled, the sound design blew me away. For a film without dialogue, the aural atmospheres and use of silence become crucial to creating the right mood, and the sound department have accomplished something really remarkable. Again, I found myself asking ‘how did they do that?’ frequently in reference to sounds such as the waves breaking, the thud of feet on sand and rain crashing through leaves, all of which sounded so realistic that by the end I was convinced that the foley artist must have travelled to a deserted island to record them. If you were to close your eyes for the duration of The Red Turtle and experience it sonically, it would be just as profound, just as satisfying; a meditation in itself. And the majestic score by Laurent Perez Del Mar is the perfect complement.
The Red Turtle is a film that grabs hold of you and does not let go. Harnessing the powers of simplicity and redefining the maxim ‘less is more’, it’s a stunning feature debut from Michaël Dudok de Wit, universal in its themes and likely to make you laugh, cry, and have a good long think afterward.
Review by Jade O’Hallaran
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