The Red Turtle is the first international coproduction from legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. Oscar-winning Dutch animator Michaël Dudok De Wit helms what’s technically a Japan / Belgium/ France coproduction, yet it’s completely universal in its themes and content. With no dialogue, no language, and zero cultural touchstones, you could show The Red Turtle to two people from opposite ends of the world and they’d both understand the events depicted, interpretations of those events however are sure to vary from viewer to viewer.
We open on a man lost at sea. A storm has wrecked his small boat but he manages to make his way to an island. We know nothing about this man, but his survival instincts are clearly top notch. He builds an impressive raft that’s quickly destroyed by something mysterious beneath the water’s surface. This happens several times before he spots the guilty party: a large red turtle. The relationship begins as an antagonistic one before going to strange and unexpected places.
While Studio Ghibli’s films are often for adults as much as they are for children, The Red Turtle is likely too abstract for kids. Despite some cute moments (usually featuring four small crabs), it’s an art film that’s beautiful, challenging and even thrilling at times, yet frustratingly enigmatic at others. Some of the film’s most poignant moments are helped along by a beautiful operatic score composed by Laurent Perez Del Mar.
Even though they’re completely different, I couldn’t help but think this would make for an odd but fun double feature with Swiss Army Man. Both take a familiar premise (a man stranded on an island) to completely new places. Whereas the corpse in Swiss Army Man helps Dano’s cast away, the red turtle seems set on keeping the man on the island.
For a sense of what to expect from The Red Turtle, I recommend watching Michaël Dudok De Wit’s Oscar-winning short film from 2000, Father and Daughter. While his feature debut isn’t as melancholic as the short that brought him to Studio Ghibli’s attention, De Wit clearly has a distinct sense of storytelling an ability to illicit feeling through wordless moving images.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage.