The man has washed ashore on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Fearing death in a secluded place, he builds a raft and sets out to sea. An unseen, underwater creature thwarts his attempt, destroying the makeshift water vessel in the process. He tries again and fails. After a third time, he discovers that it is a large sea turtle with a rouge-colored shell. It follows him as he makes his way back to shore on that third night, and this is where I will stop my attempt to summarize The Red Turtle, the lovely new film from distributor Studio Ghibli. The delight of the film is in discovering where this narrative goes and by which method it arrives there. The method is key here, because it becomes quickly obvious that the story could be told in no other fashion.
The method is threefold. First, it is a fable about loneliness and the solution man sometimes finds to remedy it. Much of The Red Turtle is interpretive in nature, but much of that nature is what I am nervous to share. The sea turtle's fate is quickly decided by co-writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit in such a way that the only truly clear thing to say is that this isn't really a film for small children. It is also invaluable for those children (perhaps aged ten and older) whose parents want them to gain fresh knowledge of the animation medium. There is a thematically loaded tale being woven here - about the inevitability of death, the randomness of nature, and the loss of innocence - that only gains momentum as it enters a third act of graceful beauty.
Second, the film is, obviously, an animated one, and that is the right decision. A live-action telling of this tale would be an awkward viewing in the wrong hands. There's something representational about the hand-drawn nature of the film as it unfolds, with fantastical, realistic, and naturalistic elements going hand-in-hand with other. Symbolism of the visual kind is central to this movie, especially with the stark shift from tale of survival to one of companionship. What might come across as bizarre or unintentionally funny with live-action instead is able to focus on the fable-like qualities of the interpretive narrative. The denouement in particular is stark and might be impossible to sell to an audience seeing it with real actors, not to mention the fact that so much of the first act is devoted to that sea turtle.
Third, the film is told without any dialogue. This might seem a limiting choice, but closer inspection reveals that it's actually a freeing one, eliminating the high probability of extraneous expository dialogue to focus on a character (or characters) who have no reason to speak. The only time this decision might falter is when more than one human character is introduced, but even then, the provocative choice to allow actions to speak without the words is a brave one. The passage of time is also handled remarkably well, shifting through decades on the island in only 80 minutes but feeling much longer (in the best sense of the phrase). That all of this is accomplished with one spoken word (an exclamatory term used thrice to this viewer's ear) is a feat worth celebrating.
At the center of The Red Turtle is a deep well of emotional content that consistently surprises and delights as much as it impacts and disquiets. It might boast a PG rating from the MPAA, but the content here is friendlier to adults than to those of the single digits in age. There are no silly poop jokes, there isn't a lot of ADHD-inflicted editing that will distract the children and supplicate the parents, and there thankfully isn't an extra visual dimension that arbitrarily darkens the image by twenty percent. This is patient, deliberate storytelling that is attentive to its character, his plight, and what it all means. It's a gift for an animated film in this market to feel so remarkably fresh as to invigorate the soul, and here is a film that does so.
Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit and written by Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran.
Rated PG (thematic elements, peril).
Released in select cities on January 20, 2017.