The Elegant Simplicity of The Red Turtle

The first feature from the Oscar-winning animator Michaël Dudok de Wit is a beautifully sparse meditation on the cycles of life.

Studio Ghibli / Sony Pictures Classics

A man, lost at sea, washes up on an island. Upon exploration, it proves to be uninhabited except for the occasional sea lion and a delightful platoon of curious sand crabs. Over time, the man builds a raft out of bamboo and once again braves the sea. But his craft is bumped by an unseen creature in the water and shatters. He tries a second time, with the same outcome; and a third, in which he discovers that the intransigent animal is an enormous red turtle that seems not to want him to leave the island.

Thus opens The Red Turtle, by the Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, and I would be remiss if I were to reveal precisely what happens next. Suffice to say that the man finds a woman, they have a child, and they face hardships together. The film that unfolds from these simple premises is spare, elegant, and profoundly moving, an evocative examination of the cycles of life, human and animal alike.

This is the first feature film by Dudok de Wit, whose Father and Daughter won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2001. That film caught the attention of the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, The Wind Rises), and in 2008 he proposed that the studio he co-founded, Studio Ghibli, assist Dudok de Wit in developing a feature.

The Red Turtle is the product of that collaboration, and in many ways it seems like a natural one. Dudok de Wit’s simple yet particular lines evoke not only past works by Studio Ghibli but also such European antecedents as Hergé’s Tintin. Apart from the turtle, whose complexity entailed CGI, the characters were hand-drawn with digital pen and set against glorious backgrounds based on charcoal drawings. The rich blues of the ocean and richer-still greens of the bamboo forest give way to haunting grays and blacks as the days and nights, too, rotate through their assigned cycles. And Dudok de Wit’s gift for the interplay between light and shadow is nothing short of glorious.

The story, co-written by the French filmmaker Pascale Ferran, is at once magical and familiar, and told without dialogue apart from the occasion wordless exclamation. There are dream sequences and elements of outright fantasy—the turtle itself is almost numinous in its watchful intelligence—as well as moments of danger and calamity. But the movie’s most powerful moments are often its most everyday: a woman and a man silently taking one another’s measure; two parents sending their grown child out into the wide world. Throughout it all, nature goes on about its business, with creatures preying upon one another in sublime innocence.

The result is a tale of uncommon beauty, at once singular and universal—a fable that recalls both ancient creation myths and Kipling’s “just so” stories. Even as it presents itself as a metaphor for life, The Red Turtle is also a straightforward depiction of it. Its title notwithstanding, it is a film almost bursting with humanity.