Less is More in 'The Red Turtle'

The Red Turtle
(France/Belgium/Japan, 80 min.)
Dir. Michael Dudok de Wit, Writ. Michael Dudok de Wit, Pascal Ferran
Sony Pictures Classics
The Red Turtle is a masterful example of how less can be more. This Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature and new Studio Ghibli film—the first international co-production from the Japanese animation empire—takes a very simple story and delivers it with breathtaking modesty. Director Michael Dudok de Wit unfurls a timeless fable in which a young man finds himself shipwrecked and stranded on an island—and nary a word of dialogue aside from a “Hey!” and a mumble here or there. Without anyone to help him until a large mythical red turtle comes ashore, the man is left to survive without so much as a volleyball named Wilson. The Red Turtle is storytelling in its purest and most basic form.

The scope of The Red Turtle resembles a short film with its concision and effortlessness, yet the canvas is admirably grand. The animation boasts a handsome palette of colours and old-school textures, so Studio Ghibli fans will undoubtedly see the continuity in style and aesthetics between The Red Turtle and the studio’s exclusively Japanese works. The film also brings a measured pace that’s far more relaxed than most animated ditties. It’s a fine alternative to shrill OCD CGI fests like Trolls.

Unfussy and uncontrived, the scope of The Red Turtle is admirably intimate as the man learns to love the surroundings that initially prove a dire sentence. As the man walks around the island, explores the basic elements for survival, and eventually builds a new life for himself, The Red Turtle lets one experience the life of this castaway through an all-seeing eye—it’s almost like Dudok de Wit devises an omniscient narrator who never speaks. The sparse and simple animation is masterfully expressive and the beautiful score by Laurent Perez del Mar offers the words, emotions, and thoughts that the characters decline to utter. Even without title cards, there is an impressive wealth of communication in this silent tale. This film calmly and sedately nudges the viewer to take in his or her surroundings and appreciate the finer things in life.

There’s an air of Gulliver’s Travels to the handsome hand drawn animation and sparse fable Dudok de Wit creates. Just like Jonathan Swift’s novel, which reads like a children’s book despite being the sophistication of the author’s satire, The Red Turtle inevitable looks and feels like a kid’s movie. However, mature audiences are bound to find this poetic and life-affirming tale to be one of the stronger animated films of the year.

The Red Turtle is now playing in Ottawa at the ByTowne and Toronto at TIFF BellLightbox.