It is 2006. You are a well-respected animator, having won an Academy Award in the Animated Short category five years before. You check your email, and surprisingly, you have one from Studio Ghibli. Are you interested in doing a feature film for them? they ask. You have never done a feature film. You haven’t even ever thought about doing a feature film. But it’s Studio Ghibli, so what do you do?
You do the feature, of course. And so, Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit embarked on a ten-year journey that would bring him to the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes 2016, and which has brought the festival its first bona fide masterpiece. The Red Turtle is such a singular work of artistic and auteurish beauty, that it fits firmly in the pantheon of the greatest animated films ever made, which, not accidentally, features several Studio Ghibli films already.
Simplicity is the key word for The Red Turtle. Gently drawn over charcoaled backgrounds with just a few strokes, both in animation and in content, a plethora of basic human emotions are conveyed, as The Red Turtle goes through the milestones of human life. The protagonist in the film, a shipwrecked man who gets stranded on a deserted island, is a simple man. Two dots for eyes, two lines for a nose, a simple circle for a mouth. Yet all his feelings are locked in these few strokes. We feel his longing when he looks out over the ocean; we feel his frustration when several attempts at building a raft are thwarted; we feel his panic when he gets stuck in a crevasse. In part this is because we can place ourselves in these situations, but then The Red Turtle aims for the core of what it means to be human, so no wonder we feel his pain, his joy, his fear. The Red Turtle sets its goals high, as it tries to depict lofty themes like the cyclical nature of life and man’s relationship to nature, but it does so in a modest, unassuming way, devoid of any pretensions. And to be able to do so, Dudok de Wit applies a masterful stroke: the film is without any dialogue. Because of this, ideas and themes are expressed just in images, editing, sound and music instead, and through the body language of the protagonist, which necessitates that he keep it simple. The Red Turtle thus becomes an act of fine gestures, actions and reactions, totally relatable, but silently powerful because of their universality. These gestures repeat, both within the man’s early days on the island in the first chapters of the film, as well as later when he gets company, and finally, over the length of the film, all of it referring to the recurring patterns in our own lives and in our own families.
Because the man does get company, and in a way that can only happen in a Ghibli film. The mystery is subtly handled, so as not to take the audience out of the story. It would be too much of a spoiler to give away what happens, but it does involve the titular reptile, and the fact that in this sequence beauty is the result of anger makes for an interesting interpretation. As does another cycle depicted in the film that also begins with a turtle, albeit a younger version: one of a group of baby turtles that tries to reach the shoreline at night, doesn’t make it, and becomes breakfast for one of the crabs that always seem to scurry around the beach. Later, the crab itself becomes dinner for an overpassing seagull. This is but an example of an outlook on the world surrounding us, where everything in nature always ends up in life, no doubt the influence of the Ghibli production team (including Grave of the Fireflies and Princess Kaguya director Isao Takahata). Nature and man’s dealings with the environment have always been a strong thread in Ghibli’s work, and even if this is only a co-production in which there was not a single Japanese hand involved in the artistic side of the film (Ghibli only produced), this has a strong connection with other works from the studio, both in its thematics as well as in the imaginative artistry applied.
Because make no mistake, The Red Turtle is one gorgeous film to look at, as well as listen to. Although the characters are fairly simply drawn, their surroundings are anything but, and the use of color to differentiate various lighting situations based on time of day and/or location alone is breathtaking. Nights are in monochrome, scenes set inside vast bamboo groves have a green, but somewhat dull sheen, and sunsets are done in appropriate soft glowing colors, complemented by skimming shadows, all put to use in Dudok de Wit’s impeccable framing that creates some stunningly beautiful shots. This environment is enhanced by an extensive sound mix of birds, insects, and other roaming creatures, finished off by Laurent Perez Del Mar’s score, with its instantly recognizable theme becoming one of the absolute highlights of the film.
That the protagonist is a blank, unnamed slate, and that the action at times can be languid or repetitive (for artistic purposes), makes The Red Turtle an animated film decidedly not aimed at children. And even adults will take some time to get attuned to the film, without any dialogue, and with the opening scenes being mostly in muted greys and greens (a result of the weather conditions in those scenes). Those who push through, however, will find a warm, humanistic film with a touching melancholy, the work of a true artist at the top of his game, given free rein to implement his vision with the help of some of the best in the business. Simply put, The Red Turtle is quite possibly the best film you will find here at Cannes.