A Lifetime on the Beach with The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle, 2016, Studio Ghibli

The Red Turtle 

Michaël Dudok de Wit (director)
Michaël Dudok de Wit & Pascale Ferran (writers)
Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch
June 29, 2017 France, September 17, 2016 Japan

The world has been loud and tumultuous lately–incoming news is coming in so fast it’s hard to keep up and what can be read feels overwhelming. The Red Turtle is an excellent, beautiful escape from the constant input of unfocused information. It’s stripped down, told mainly through emotionally rendered animals and beautiful landscapes that evoke specific moods, letting the viewer immerse themselves in both its small island environment and the vast, peaceful emptiness of the sea. Watching The Red Turtle is like stepping onto a different planet, one where instead of over-stimulation, each detail is lovingly presented to you without background noise. Tiny sand crabs scuttling across a beach are blown up huge across the theater screen, the sound of rain and the rustling of leaves become the sole audio focal point for stretches of time. It’s escapism, but not mindless–each movement, sigh, rainstorm, and sky is deliberate; the setting draws you in and from there you’re immersed.

From the first scene, you’re swept up in nature. The film opens with a great rolling storm in the sea, reminiscent of The Great Wave by Hokusai, and we meet our protagonist, a sailor of some sort who washes ashore. In contrast to the violent storm, the island in the sunlight is lush–green trees, fresh water streams, beautifully clean beaches. There are some rocks, and a little bit of danger, but our man masters it quickly enough. There’s food to eat, even before he starts hunting. He’s not content, however, to settle into a new life in this quasi-Eden, and so he begins to make rafts out of the wood provided by the island.

This involves scenes of the man dragging wood, tying it together, pushing his raft out to sea, but the pacing here is almost brisk rather than laborious. Despite having no real words to say, there’s skillful voice-acting at work here in the form of each huff, puff, and sigh we hear from the man as he works. (I won’t lie, it was a little like playing a Zelda game with all his huffing and puffing.) The castaway tries his best to leave the island, only to be stopped by a mysterious unseen creature. The skillfulness of the film is really in how it lets us into the head of a character who never speaks, never narrates his thoughts. Sometimes he howls with rage and isolation, but there’s no running internal narrative that we can hear. We know exactly how he’s feeling, what he’s missing, and what he’s longing for, expressed through dreams and looks and sighs.

There’s a definite shift in the film’s focus partway, from his battle with his circumstance to his eventual truce with it. The shift occurs when we finally meet the titular red turtle; suddenly the film has an active antagonist, another creature more complex than the hurried and scuttling sand crabs that follow the castaway around. They tangle, and his relationship with nature turns into a story about his relationship with a mysterious woman. Perhaps it’s the same thing.

The woman has long red hair, and shares the brown, sun-kissed skin of the castaway, and they explore each other as they float around the landscape. We’ve learned the island as intimately as the ones living on it; the film returns to the same spots over and over again–cliffs, grassy fields, the small tropical forest. You get the feeling that there’s no stone that hasn’t been overturned there by its inhabitants; they become another feature of the isle. We get to watch a silent courtship, a connection forged without any traditional trappings of civil society. It’s slow, peaceful, even romantic, and eventually they start a family.

I wasn’t excepting this turn, to be honest, and it does bring up a wrinkle in the primary conceit of no dialogue. If you’re a pedant (like me), the logistics of raising a family on an isolated isle in the middle of the ocean might be distracting; I know I thought more than once about what the effects of raising a child without a spoken language would be or if father and son spoke to each other off-screen. The middle stretch’s lack of dialogue is the only place that silence feels forced, rather than organic to situation. Indeed, at times it feels like The Red Turtle would be better suited for an animated short; though I never felt like it dragged, it could have definitely been tighter, sharper, and even shorter than it’s eighty minute run time. The luxury of its length is almost the point, though; its content with itself the same way our castaway is content, even satisfied, with the pace of life around him. Pacing in a film with no dialogue is everything, and The Red Turtle‘s biggest sin is not taking enough time to really dig into the psychology of the characters after the island population triples. Or at least, the woman’s psychology remains mysterious. The castaway is a central figure in a modern day fable, an allegory, a person whose relationship with nature is in many ways totally exposed in The Red Turtle. But there’s no self-consciousness there.

Our humans are rendered as simple figures with dots for eyes, populating a beautifully detailed world, a departure from the more recognizable house style of Studio Ghibli. That makes sense, as this is a co-production with a French production company (Wild Bunch) and de Wit himself is Dutch-Belgian, all countries with their own animation history. While at first the difference in detail between the lead and his home was jarring, it fits thematically. He’s simply a visitor to something greater and richer than himself. At times, shots of the island sans people look almost like photographs, just a hint of the fact that it’s animated in the smudged edges. Lighting creates amazing backdrops to the fable playing out on the island. The artistry of the island at night is sublime, a wash of gray light provided by a night sky unencumbered by light pollution spilling over a now-familiar landscape. I had my breath in my throat during a few scenes that capture a real spectacular delight, the kind of swooping fantasy that can only be achieved in animation; our castaway flies over the sea in his dreams as a star-packed sky soars above him. If you’ve ever seen that many stars in the sky you know the kind of clear magic it holds, and the movie replicates that awesomeness while the castaway dreams of the world he left behind, of the world he lives in, of the red turtle who thwarted him.

Very rarely does the island present any menace in its nooks and crannies. Instead, each segment provides for the family’s different needs: soft grass to sleep on, wood, and rocks to jump from into the ocean. But The Red Turtle doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of nature. We see the death inherent in the lives of the tiny sand crabs that set the emotional tone of various scenes. We see animals die and used for resources. The family aren’t hunters, per se, but they fish and eat shellfish rather than simply eat fruit and plants. It’s never gruesome, but blood, sometimes, must be spilled. The island itself seems like a place that provides everything the castaway and his family could need, but it can still be a place of violence. They must contend with the weather, but the weather isn’t a real antagonist; it just happens, is neutral, indifferent to the fact that a family exists on the island. The people are beside the point to nature, which carries no malice and provides so much wordlessly. The choices made by the island’s inhabitants are the real moral center of the film–to stay, to go, to allow another person inside, to trust that you did enough.

The Red Turtle never quite lives up to the heights that it grazes, visually and emotionally. It is a beautiful, quiet meditation on man’s connection with nature, but not the kind that inspires panicked fear of a changing climate or even a reminder of its terrible mystery. Instead, it’s a reminder of how beautiful the world can be if you accept it. It’s a fable of choices, and if you choose to let it sweep you away you’ll be rewarded with a dreamy escape, at least for a moment.

Kat Overland

Kat Overland

Small press editor Kat Overland is a displaced Texan now living in Washington, DC, where she is perpetually behind on reading her pull list. She's a millennial, Latina, exhausted, and can often be spotted casually cosplaying America Chavez and complaining.