Studio Ghibli has been known for being extremely selective when it comes to their projects. Their films will always hold a special place in my heart as some of the strongest animated titles one can find. However, there was noticeably something different about The Red Turtle from the moment the studio logo appeared. While the drawing is generally presented on a blue background, it has now been painted in red. This is meant to represent that this is a co-production, and not exclusively Studio Ghibli. Michael Dudok de Wit makes his feature debut after making an impressive array of animated shorts - one of which (Father and Daughter) winning him an Oscar. Will this earn him a second golden statue?
This eighty-minute film follows the life of a castaway on a deserted tropical island, which is only populated by turtles, crabs, and birds. Each time the man attempts to build a raft to escape the island, a large red sea turtle destroys it. Little does he know, this turtle will change his life forever.
Opening on a moment of crisis, a man emerges from the dangerous tides that held him underwater. He wakes up on an island, as he manages to find a fresh water source and fruit for survival. After a series of nightmares revolving around his escape, he makes the decision to build a raft. When he sets off, it ultimately falls apart once reaching open water. Each time he builds a bigger and sturdier version to only reach the same result. The first half of the film has a tone that feels very much inspired by the comical quirkiness that Studio Ghibli has become known for. The crabs on the island are reminiscent of personalities that one would find in Spirited Away. While they certainly add an element of humor, they also allow the lead to interact with something before the red turtle comes into the picture.
The Red Turtle covers many years, as it focuses on the major points of the man's life. It's a lyrical film that doesn't place its focus on narrative, or even character. The themes of humanity, nature, and life drive the feature. Its lack of dialogue makes it feel more universal. Regardless of one's region or language, Michael Dudok de Wit has crafted something impactful that anybody can experience to the fullest. However, it's the type of cinema that expects its audience to simply allow it to sweep us away into a perspective of the world that is rarely explored on the silver screen. Nearly every scene is laced with a deeper meaning that makes The Red Turtle such a rich feature that we all knew could come from Michael Dudok de Wit.
In a world where the same CG is used in practically every Hollywood animated movie, it's refreshing to see this filmmaker's gorgeous use of visuals. From the opening shot in the ocean, one can see the enormous amount of work that went into crafting each and every frame. The island that our lead finds himself stranded on offers some of the most breathtaking shots that one could imagine. Even something as simple as ocean water washing upon the shore is given a sense of beauty that feels unique to The Red Turtle.
Unfortunately, animated cinema has come to be known as a medium for children in America. Michael Dudok de Wit proves that it can be utilized to tell stories made for adults. There's a lot to get out of his first feature length film, regardless of its lack of dialogue; it's visually poetic in all of the best ways. This is one worth seeing more than once, as it has complex layers in its themes that can be greater appreciated upon a second viewing. The Red Turtle is a quietly enchanting exploration of what it means to be human. Highly recommended!