The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge); animated; 80min; Rated PG
“The Red Turtle” is a breathtaking fable, written and animated by Oscar-winning Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit, working in collaboration with Studio Ghibli, the renowned Japanese house of animation perhaps best known for creating the feature “Ponyo.”
Please note that though “The Red Turtle” has a PG rating and is only 80 minutes long, it is not simply kid-friendly. What gives this film its emotional power is that not a single word is spoken, nor is a single word needed. In fact, the silence of the film falls away as the filmgoer is transported into a captivating story that is completely unexpected, one that gives the illusion of being slight but is instead deeply complex and almost Zen-like in its composition.
The film opens with a raging, storm-tossed sea and abruptly the head of a man appears floating just above the surface, struggling to survive. He spots a capsized lifeboat and clings to it as the wind howls and the water churns.
When the sun rises, the sky now clear, the man is lying on a wide sandy beach. He doesn’t stir until a small sand crab crawls up the leg of his pants and bites him. It’s then that he wakes, slowly stands, and looks around. He is alone. All he sees is ocean and a necklace of sand, finally noticing that just beyond the beach is a forest of lush green bamboo that covers the island. He searches the interior of the island and finds a fresh water lagoon in the interior. There is also low hanging fruit. Following in his footsteps near the ocean’s edge is a small chorus of curious sand crabs.
Days pass. The night sky is awash with stars and a soft crescent moon. And gradually the reality of his circumstances is revealed. His isolation is total. One day he imagines there is a string quartet playing on the beach.
Determined to escape, using the bamboo from the forest, he builds a raft. But he barely gets beyond the breakwater sandbar when something hits his raft from below and shatters it. He is mystified and tries again and after days of hard work using the plentiful bamboo, he launches into the ocean. Again the raft is wrecked just beyond the shore. It is then that an enormous turtle with a bright red shell emerges from the deep. This time when he swims back the turtle follows, crawling awkwardly up onto the sandy beach.
Angrily, wracked by loneliness, his plan to escape once again ruined, he turns the massive turtle upside down and leaves it in the hot sun.
What happens next is magical and I am reluctant to explain more. But suffice it to say that it is then that the narrative arc of the film is revealed, and it beckons the audience to step into a reverie that is so quietly offered up it can only be called a meditation on life.
Using a palette of vibrant and muted colors, it is all but impossible not to be drawn in, pulled, like a gentle outgoing tide swirling around your ankles, the sand slipping from under your feet.
“The Red Turtle” is a parable, in parts allegorical and archetypal, filled with moments that are profoundly moving. What is real and what is surreal is left courageously unanswered. And all that takes place as the film unfolds will linger, nudging the filmgoer to ponder its minimalist poignancy and its painterly beauty.
Know that in some ways this animated film is the antidote to the cacophony of so many movies made for a younger demographic. But its depth, its silence, may be a bridge too far for some young viewers, the patience required beyond their reach. Adults, in contrast, will likely find “The Red Turtle” to be a universal story, its artistry incomparable, its humanity evocative and deeply moving.