Making something as straightforward as “The Red Turtle” is no easy task. Making something so simple and as incredible as “The Red Turtle” is even harder. Although, somehow it meets the challenge. It’s about a nameless man who, set adrift by a storm, washes up on an island’s shore. He gets his bearings and starts to explore, gathering resources for food and shelter. Once he’s settled in, he makes three rafts, all of which are destroyed by what he finds out to be a red turtle. That red turtle comes on shore one day, and the man makes a choice that has, to put it lightly, unpredictable consequences.
I assure you, those consequences aren’t what you think they are. This movie has a fascinating tension to it because, without dialogue or explanation at all, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen. Some moments are more transparent, but all of them are tearjerkers. “The Red Turtle” is one of those animations that’s beautiful enough to make viewers tear up on sight.
That’s thanks to the animation and music equally. Studio Ghibli co-produced, so the visual sensibility is familiar. It’s soft and warm, even in the roughest moments. However, when coupled with director Michael Dudok de Wit’s style it looks like the perfect marriage between Japanese ink wash painting and Chinese watercolor. Animation like that calls for quietude, and “The Red Turtle” has that in spades.
Without spoiling too much, more characters show up eventually. Even then, there’s no dialogue. The most moving moments in here, especially the drawing-in-the-sand scene, are built on silence. At points, it feels like “The Red Turtle” taps into the kind of communication we knew as children but have forgotten. In those days, everything was big, and everything was fascinating.
The stunning landscapes will have viewers feeling just that way: eager to hunt the frame for every minute color shift. The characters themselves are so organic on the island that differentiating them, narratively speaking, is impossible. With its magical realist edge, the man and his companions are drawn even closer to the land. Above that, however, “The Red Turtle” is an exercise in setting. Through subtle framing and parallax, the island’s dominance of its inhabitants is clear. De Wit is careful to assert that dominance in every small and large way he can.
There’s a timely discussion here about our place in nature and how we find meaning in it. Going that deep, though, doesn’t feel quite right. The movie’s magic comes from its matter-of-factness. It’s a compact tale where everything viewers see on screen happens. The story finds meaning for its own sake: the images and what they mean are one in the same. Analyzing that is dangerous because its meaning isn’t in the interpretation, it’s in the feeling.
The music, on the other hand, adds a lot but threatens to overstate the point. Everything about the movie is so quiet that fluffing it up with a swelling score sometimes feels like a disservice. When it works, though, it really works. When it’s comfortable being as simple as the movie, the whole feels transcendent. In those moments, getting lost in “The Red Turtle” is easy, and finding your way back feels like a disappointment.