Director: Michael Dudok de Wit/2016
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film, The Red Turtle is an exquisite tale of loss, loneliness, and ultimately life in all of its phases. Director Michael Dudok de Wit conducts a symphony with the animation as it crescendos and decrescendos in its various movements corresponding to the journey of our protagonists with occasionally repeated sections that connect it altogether. With absolutely no dialogue, other than an occasional yell for help, The Red Turtle is a story that must absorbed. The colors and hues, the music, and the recognizable seasons of life that ebb and flow like the ocean tide drive the narrative forward, even if the lack of dialogue does not.
The story follows a man who has survived his ship being lost at sea. Clinging to life, he washes up onto the shore of an uninhabited island. As he explorers, he finds that there are some crabs, caterpillars, trees, rocks, a small fresh water pond, and the like, but not much else. Determined to leave, he begins to make a raft out of the items he finds on the island. Setting sail, he gets just past the reef when his raft is destroyed by a giant red turtle. This building of a raft, setting sail, and having the raft destroyed plays out multiple times. Each time, the man’s hatred of the red turtle grows.
One day, the red turtle is walking on shore, and the man, in a blinding rage, attacks the turtle, upending it. Being upside down, the turtle has no way to get back to the sea and is left to bake in the hot sun without water. This lasts for days until one day the man realizes what he has done and seeks to get fresh water for the turtle to try to nurse it back to health.
With absolutely no dialogue, other than an occasional yell for help, The Red Turtle is a story that must absorbed. The colors and hues, the music, and the recognizable seasons of life that ebb and flow like the tide drive the narrative forward, even if the lack of dialogue does not.
In the meantime, we are given glimpses of this man’s dreams. Dreams where he is flying, leaving the island, or having other dreams of a chamber quartet playing stringed instruments like the cello, that appear to him as he walks down the beach, reminding him of a life he once lived. So as he returns to give the water to the red turtle, the shell cracks and the turtle is transformed into a beautiful human woman. We are left wondering if this is simply another fantasy, but the remainder of the film drives home the point that on this island anything is possible.
The man and the woman are seen bonding, and playfully getting to know one another. We see their “dates” and courtship, and then their obvious commitment to one another. We see them become parents, and the ups and downs of parenthood, as there are many successes, and a few failures. Even without a single word of dialogue, we are drawn in to their story and can identify with the obvious developmental and experiential markers one has at each stage of life. A particularly touching moment involves their son facing a life-threatening situation similar to one experienced by his father years earlier. Each generation, often faces similar challenges.
As their child begins to grow, we see the man and the woman age and the nature of their relationship changes into one that isn’t just one that is based on proximity and activity, but one that grows deeper and richer over time. One of the more poignant moments is when their child is ready to leave the nest, which means the island, and how they react as he takes his own raft and pushes off the shore. Unlike his father, there is no red turtle destroying his craft as he fades away into the sunset. All that is left is the man and the woman hoping that as they send their child into the world, that they have prepared them for all of the things they are going to face.
While everyone who watches this tale will be left to wonder what it means to them, there are some interesting theories about what actually took place. Was it all one of the man’s visions or dreams? Did the red turtle truly take human form? One theory suggests that it is a tale of the first people, ala Adam and Eve, where the man desires companionship and goes about the business of the day until a woman is fashioned for him. Yet despite this sort of island Eden, destruction and pain find their way into their lives in a way that “casts them out” of the Utopian setting.
No matter whether you agree with some of these theories, or develop some of your own, The Red Turtle is a film that will touch your heart. Its animation is simple and striking despite not being at the technical level of some of the other Best Animated Film nominees like Zootopia, Moana, or Kubo and the Two Strings. Find a way to see this film, in all of its quiet beauty, as it opens in limited release.