We are reminded in THE RED TURTLE how superfluous words can be. This animated fable from Studio Ghibli, aimed more at adults than at children, is a thoughtful film about the cycle of life, and a sublime cinematic achievement. A masterpiece, in fact.
Starting with a shipwreck, it tells the story of a castaway marooned on a desert island that is isolated, but not inhospitable. There is an abundance of fresh water, of food, and of the balmy weather that nourishes life in many forms. None of this matters to the man, who sets about building meticulous rafts, one after another, in order to take to the seas and civilization. Each attempt thwarted by something very big and very determined just beneath the surface once he makes it past the breakers and onto the open ocean. The something eventually reveals itself as the titular chelonian, perhaps one of the very sea turtles that the man had seen hatch and scurry to the sea years before. When the man confronts the turtle underwater, there is a moment of, if not recognition, at least connection, as the human gazes into the eyes of the turtle and sees more than a dumb animal.
In fact, there are no dumb animals in this film, unless you count the blind rage of the man as he struggles against his fate, a rage that erupts into violence, repentance, and then a miracle. When the turtle comes ashore, the man takes out his frustration and anguish on the creature, which responds by turning into a beautiful woman with long flowing red hair. Silent though she is, and serious of mien, she is generous of heart, and gives him companionship, love, and, eventually, a son.
Without spoken dialogue to distract, the sensory experience is a potent one, with the sound design firmly tethering the unreality of animation and magic to the real world. Everything is rendered with simplicity. There is economy but power in the animation, with the man lying prone staring at the sky containing more despair than any of his cries of frustration, or a simple gesture of sharing a morsel of food imbued with cosmic implications. One correct sweep of a line conveys a whole attitude, and even the crabs who provide the comic relief as well as the reminders that the cycle of life includes death, evince not just puckish personalities, but also actual souls as they scuttle about.
There are guideposts to guide us almost subliminally. The storm that strands the man on the island is rendered in black and white and gray, and it is only as he settles into the island that the tropical colors bloom. Even the brown of the sand the rocky outcrops have a warmth to them. The dreams of the man and the boy encapsulate longing and prophecy both, and an almost imperceptible nod of a head tolls the end of an era.
THE RED TURTLE is a tone poem of accepting fate and discovering destiny. It is a pure distillation of the human experience in harmony with itself and the world. Mythic yet immediate, it’s evocative in its emotional resonance and stunning in its visceral impact. It is transcendent. N.B. It was voted Best Animated Film by one of the critics. groups of which I am a member.