The Red Turtle is a gorgeous animated film that doesn’t need words to profoundly move us, bringing tears to our eyes when we least expect it
The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) (2016)

Di­rect­ed by Michaël Du­dok de Wit. Writ­ten by Michaël Du­dok de Wit and Pas­cale Fer­ran.

There are cer­tain films that need no words to have a pro­found im­pact on us, and The Red Tur­tle is one of those films. Made by Dutch an­i­ma­tor Michaël Du­dok de Wit (who took home an Acad­e­my Award for his melan­choly an­i­mat­ed short Fa­ther and Daugh­ter) and in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Stu­dio Ghi­b­li, this gor­geous an­i­mat­ed fea­ture is com­plete­ly de­void of di­a­logue and yet man­ages to con­vey every­thing it wants to say with­out any need of ex­po­si­tion. Just sur­ren­der to its mag­ic beau­ty and you will find a touch­ing sto­ry about time, love, dreams, and what makes us hu­mans.

The Red Tur­tle be­gins with a man caught in a storm at sea and wak­ing up on a de­sert­ed is­land. At first, he ex­plores the isle and tries to find oth­er peo­ple but soon re­al­izes he’s alone. Af­ter find­ing fresh fruit, potable wa­ter and a for­est of bam­boos there, he sees a wood­en bar­rel float­ing on the wa­ter and de­cides to build a raft out of bam­boos so that he can re­turn to where he came from. But once he sets out into the sea, his raft is at­tacked and de­stroyed by an un­seen sea crea­ture that forces him back to the is­land.

Frus­trat­ed, the man builds an­oth­er raft, but it is also de­stroyed by the mys­te­ri­ous crea­ture. Af­ter build­ing a third raft, he fi­nal­ly comes face to face with a large red tur­tle, and in a fit of rage, ex­pressed so per­fect­ly by the scene’s use of red and tense mu­sic, he at­tacks the an­i­mal with a bam­boo stick and ends up killing it. But the man, feel­ing ter­ri­bly guilty, is com­plete­ly caught by sur­prise when the turtle’s shell splits in half and the an­i­mal mag­i­cal­ly turns into a red-haired woman. Soon, the two be­gin a ro­mance af­ter she throws away her bro­ken shell into the sea and he does the same with his raft.

In most usu­al nar­ra­tives, ex­po­si­tion is of­ten used to ex­plain with words what is in­vis­i­ble to our eyes. But The Red Tur­tle does the ex­act op­po­site, and the mag­ic be­hind the tur­tle is nev­er ex­plained. Was this woman cursed? Is she a su­per­nat­ur­al crea­ture? We nev­er know, and it doesn’t mat­ter. Same thing goes for any di­a­logue that could ex­press his guilt and her for­give­ness. Why words if what they do is so mean­ing­ful? When they walk along the beach side by side, their paths on the sand con­verge un­til the two end up float­ing to­geth­er in a lyri­cal hug that ex­press­es so beau­ti­ful­ly their to­geth­er­ness.

An even more mean­ing­ful mo­ment comes lat­er on when they draw pic­tures in the sand to tell their son about the world and their lives, or when the boy, old­er, swims with green tur­tles as though he is one of them. The 2D tra­di­tion­al an­i­ma­tion is stun­ning, blend­ing hand-drawn and dig­i­tal tech­niques while find­ing a most per­fect bal­ance be­tween the Eu­ro­pean ligne claire car­toon­ing style of Hergé and the art of Japan­ese scroll paint­ings. Here, more at­ten­tion is paid to the char­ac­ters’ sketchy move­ments than their fa­cial ex­pres­sions, and there are daz­zling vi­su­als like the dense green bam­boo for­est and the vast­ness of the sea.

Also fan­tas­tic is the film’s sound de­sign, which draws us into the is­land with the im­mer­sive sounds of the for­est, the sea, the rain, the an­i­mals (in­clud­ing sea li­ons and seag­ulls), the plants and trees wav­ing in the wind. Why words when you can do such an amaz­ing job with what you show and make us hear? Be­sides, The Red Tur­tle nev­er ceas­es to stun us with its mag­nif­i­cent score by French com­pos­er Lau­rent Perez del Mar — and I wouldn’t be ex­ag­ger­at­ing if I said this is one of the most beau­ti­ful film scores I’ve ever heard. You will see what I’m say­ing when you reach the movie’s won­der­ful and po­et­i­cal­ly sad last scene.

But The Red Tur­tle is also im­pres­sive­ly rich when it comes to its de­tails — like a bot­tle with wa­ter rep­re­sent­ing the boy’s de­sire to leave the is­land, the man’s shad­ow that re­sem­bles the shape of bam­boos, and the woman’s hair whose col­or red is usu­al­ly as­so­ci­at­ed with pas­sion and love. Be­fore the man starts build­ing his sec­ond raft, there is a brief mo­ment of ap­pre­hen­sion when the for­est falls into a com­plete si­lence, as if hold­ing its breath for a sec­ond, and then all of a sud­den the sounds are back — and I per­son­al­ly love an­oth­er scene when his son sees a green tur­tle un­der the wa­ter and goes up to the sur­face for more air be­fore div­ing back in.

It’s all this care and love that makes The Red Tur­tle so spe­cial. You may not be al­ways sure what cer­tain el­e­ments are, or if they are meant to be in­ter­pret­ed as metaphors for some­thing else, but there isn’t a sec­ond there that makes us feel that the film doesn’t know what it’s do­ing. And if you are pa­tient enough and em­brace all the beau­ty it of­fers, it should prob­a­bly bring tears to your eyes when you least ex­pect it.

Au­gust 8, 2017

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