Dutch writer-director Michael Dudok de Wit’s first animated feature is quiet, mysterious, and breathtaking. It is almost entirely void of vocal language, other than the occasional emotive grunt. It complements silence with the audible twisting and turning of the tropics—leaves whistling in the wind, ocean waves washing onto the sand, unseen life bustling and breathing. The light bleeding off de Wit’s trademark watercolors render the island of The Red Turtle into some kind of spiritual being.
When a nameless middle-aged man finds himself stranded on an island after his ship is swallowed by a storm, he does what any marooned human would do: he survives. Stark loneliness births desperate exploration. Exploration breeds discovery and survival tactics. Tactics lead to attempted escape after attempted escape. But something is keeping the man on the island. He continually builds larger and stronger bamboo rafts, but he can never get very far away from shore before an unidentified water creature destroys the raft from underneath, leaving the man perplexed and enraged.
When he finally sights the creature, the man becomes murderous. He aligns the red turtle in his crosshairs. But, unbeknownst to the man, the arrival of the creature will end up defining the rest of his life. The mysterious red turtle starts him on a life-spanning journey of love and loss that enraptures the viewer’s mind and spirit. We, too, are held captive by the mystical manifestation of the turtle. It initially comes across as the island’s numinous muse, but later reveals greater depths in its supernatural development.
As the first non-Japanese film produced by Hayao Miyazaki’s famed Studio Ghibli, The Red Turtle reaffirms the company’s aesthetic in its first deviation from Japanese anime tradition. Though Ghibli fanatics might find it hard to believe, the studio itself reached out to de Wit, citing the magnificence of his Oscar-winning short film Father and Daughter (see below) as proof that his Japanese-inspired artistic direction was worthy of the studio’s investment. The film’s reveries, bathed in themes so thick and thorough they can only be felt, wowed Cannes audiences in 2016. Truly, no words do it justice.