The Red Turtle is most impressive for what it does not do. There is not a spoken sentence in Michaël Dudok de Wit’s film, just a few speech-like effects. The storytelling comes primarily from visual effects, character gestures, and onscreen action. Most incredible of all is the animation, which employs both hand-drawn and 3D techniques.
In the opening scenes, a man battles storm-tossed waves that ultimately toss him onto the shores of a deserted island. He finds food, creates a shelter, and begins building a raft for his escape. Except for sea lions and a group of energetic crabs, he is entirely alone.
He finishes his raft and sets off. A large red turtle follows, destroying the raft when he is only minutes from shore. The man makes two more attempts, with the same result. He tries to kill the red turtle, which changes into a human woman.
Revealing more of the plot would deny audience members a truly special viewing experience. This film reminds me of Pixar’s WALL-E, because both are animated features that strongly resemble silent films (especially those of the late 1920s, which often had synchronized sound effects).
Skillful animation allows for interplay between characters with the bare minimum of gestures or motion. In a couple of key scenes, I understood what was going to happen but honestly could not say how I knew it. De Wit and his animation team use a combination of elements to carry off the illusion. (They had an expert guide for this task, Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata.)
Although the film does not utilize dialogue, de Wit and his team found ways to make it feel natural. The track accompanying the film features recordings of humans laughing, coughing, and even breathing. Laurent Perez Del Mar’s score complements the action beautifully.
The script, co-written by de Wit (Father and Daughter) and Pascale Ferran (Bird People), arises from diverse sources. De Wit has sited fairy tales, Greek mythology, the book Kwaidan, the character Tintin, and American cartoonist/animator Winsor McCay as influences.
All of this comes together to create a poetic fable about the circle of life. I suspect The Red Turtle may have more admirers than full-out fans, but I also think it will live in the memory of everyone who sees it.
Theme: Animation For Romantics
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