The Red Turtle is a film about necessity: about what it takes to survive on the barest of essentials, but also about the grunt-work of creation, about creating because you must and seeing something through to the end because there is no other end in sight. With the help of Studio Ghibli (who counts this film as their first care of a non-Japanese filmmaker) and Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata, writer-director Michaël Dudok de Wit has spent the past ten years crafting something of a pure animated film—“essential” cinema in that it’s boiled down to its essentials. The Red Turtle, nearly wordless and painstakingly gorgeous, exists outside of time, outside of any context, really, that could tether the film to our world. It’s more sensation than story—more impressionistic than thematic. As an accomplishment alone, it should be held as a landmark, especially coming from a studio known for its landmarks—but as a narrative rather than as an object to admire, it struggles to have anything salient to say.
Dutch-British Dudok de Wit’s film is an international affair, co-financed by studios out of Japan, Belgium and France. Perhaps born from that kind of multilingual pedigree, The Red Turtle carries a healthy distrust of language—not only its acuity in conveying universal truths, but in the way language automatically sets up a barrier between the audience and the emotional truth of his (admittedly archetypal) story. Dudok de Wit dwarfs humanity throughout his film, placing his teensy figures with their Euro-centric, Tintin-eque eye dots amidst densely lush jungles and intimidating vistas, allowing them only the occasional “hey!” or grunt or whimper to rise above the white noise of his environment’s natural musique concrète. Ditching language altogether, Dudok de Wit seems to be damning an audience’s sense of privilege: No matter what we think, the language of nature will always hold so much more power than any language we use to feebly bend reality to our will. If The Red Turtle has one clear message, it’s obviously environmental, but more concerned with the foundational aspects of environmentalism than any “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. To save the world, we have to recognize our insignificant place within it.
So, Dudok de Wit uses the grammar of myth. An unnamed man washes up on the shore of a nameless deserted island. He explores his surroundings, almost dies, learns an important lesson about his new home, and inevitably builds a raft from the island’s ample bamboo stock. The raft, almost as inevitably, capsizes after a first try, at the mercy of unseen forces. So the man tries again—repetition becomes the backbone of this fable, as is the case in all fables—and the same disaster happens again, and again, and the man comes to learn that his malady is the work of the titular red tortoise, a giant reptile who seems particularly motivated to keep the man on the island. Angry, the man finds an opportunity to take his desperation out on the tortoise, disabling the creature on the beach and leaving it to die. Which it does, despite the man’s increasingly manic sense of regret, before the shell of the creature breaks open post-mortem to reveal a red-haired woman who will become the man’s partner and lover, giving birth to a son who will one day leave the island. Rebirth, resurrection and animals so large they’re practically elemental, all of it presented in threes: De Wit understands the empirical underbelly of a great parable.
But as The Red Turtle moves deliberately from the man’s initial Robinson Crusoe-like quandary to its finale, pregnant with so much magical realism one wonders if it even counts as magical realism any more, Dudok de Wit’s point—or message, or narrative, or lesson—drowns amidst so much breathtaking ambition. It’s worth writing again: The Red Turtle aches with beauty in every frame. It’s a testament to Dudok de Wit’s dedication that even those images created with CG (i.e., the turtle itself, whose digital nature lends the creature an important grace in motion) bear the aesthetic of laborious, over-detailed hand-drawn animation, which obviously drew Ghibli to Dudok de Wit in the first place, but which—especially in light of its Oscar nomination —is a look and feel and ineffable warmth worth preserving the more Ghibli becomes the last animation studio standing still going to great lengths to avoid CG as much as possible.
Still, The Red Turtle is a conundrum in interpretation. Dudok de Wit seems to both embrace the indifference of Nature while taking great pains to demonstrate its benevolence; he champions the need for humanity to preserve Nature’s greatness while ending his story on a note of perseverance, characterizing the forces of Nature (which the Red Turtle/Woman wield) as sure to outlast us. His film is sad and lonely, but also not that at all. Is Dudok de Wit implying that if we copulate with Nature we’ll be able to create a Nature-Human hybrid who can hold his breath underwater for long periods of time and will one day become King of the Turtles? How can such an ambitious film damn our proclivity for ambition? If humanity can only learn how to preserve Nature through its destruction, then what if there’s nothing left to preserve after we’ve destroyed it all? The Red Turtle is a lovely feast of contradictions.
Which is maybe the point: Dudok de Wit and Takahata demand nothing less than a complete paradigm shift. So The Red Turtle takes us back to a prelapsarian past, and builds its world from that ground up. It can be tedious, but even in tedium Dudok de Wit always offers something wonderful to behold. With every drawing, Dudok de Wit wants us to re-think our place in this world: to understand that we are insignificant, but that even in insignificance we should try to reach greatness. Which may or may not make any sense at all—Dudok de Wit will keep reaching regardless.
Director: Michaël Dudok de Wit
Writers: Michaël Dudok de Wit, Pascale Ferran
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Dom Sinacola is Sr. Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.