No man is an island entire of itself, or so the English poet John Donne famously wrote, but in Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, one man comes as close as humanly possible. The wordless animated movie, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, marks the feature film debut of Dudok de Wit, a man whom legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli personally sought out for their first international co-production. Made in cohesion with France-based Wild Bunch, The Red Turtle is an exquisite piece of art, a breathless celebration of nature, and an achingly beautiful story of survival against all odds that feels like a fairy tale in its delivery. In other words, it is essential viewing.
The film evokes Robinson Crusoe with its story of a man, lost at sea, who washes up on a desert island completely alone. His only compatriots, it would seem, are curious white crabs scuttling across the shore (de Wit cuts to them frequently for moments of levity, but not to the point of obnoxiousness). Rather than giving up hope, the man begins to build a raft so he can sail away from his floating prison, but each and every time he begins to put meaningful distance between him and the island something rams his boat, smashing it to smithereens. That something turns out to be the gigantic red sea turtle evoked in the film’s title, and it clearly has some sort of attachment to the man. When it crawls out of the briny deep onto the beach where the man lives, though, the film takes a distinct and sudden turn for the surreal. To explain what happens next would do the film a disservice, as it is best experienced without the burden of prior knowledge, but just know that it feels like an apocryphal Greek myth of sorts.
That mythic quality is something that weighs heavily on The Red Turtle, a story cooked up frantically by the director after receiving a fateful phone call from Studio Ghibli, then lovingly crafted over the course of several years. Although its narrative is not rooted in any particular mythology or source material, it does feel like a lavish pastiche of literature and folklore. (In a post-screening Q&A session, de Wit mentioned Lafcadio Hearn’s seminal collection of Japanese ghost stories Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things as reference material given to him by Isao Takahata, for example.) Each and every frame of this film could be printed out and mounted on a wall–that’s how gorgeous it is. De Wit and his collaborators employ a painterly style that combines gauzy, charcoal based backgrounds and spartan character design with intensely detailed linework. The result makes for imagery that feels both visceral and ethereal, putting the viewer into the perspective of the stranded man, never quite sure what is real and what is imagined…only that it is beautiful.
Despite its idyllic depiction, the island is filled with genuine dangers, imbuing the story with real stakes. For example, early on in the man’s exploration of the island, he slips and falls on a cliff, into a rocky cove with seemingly no way out. His only escape is to swim deep below the water and wriggle through a treacherously narrow cove. The swelling, sinister strains of violin music from composer Laurent Perez Del Mar add a guttural tension to the scene that will have you holding your breath right along with our slowly suffocating hero. Other, far greater dangers await the characters too, later in the film, but to spoil them here would do a disservice to this incredible work, which as I’ve mentioned is best served unspoiled.
Although Dudok de Wit worked closely with Studio Ghibli–specifically co-founder Isao Takahata, as Hayao Miyazaki had no involvement–The Red Turtle feels like the singular vision of the Dutch animator. He proved he is a formidable filmmaker with his Oscar-winning 2000 short “Father and Daughter,” but The Red Turtle cements him as one of the most vital directors working in animation. In an entertainment landscape dominated by superhero spectacle, hailstorms of bullets, and thoughtless explosions, The Red Turtle is a breath of fresh air, a jolt of life, and one of the most refreshing cinematic experiences of the year. Much like silence, this film’s inevitable awards season prospects are golden.
Rating: 5 out of 5 burritos
The Red Turtle hits theaters on November 18.
Image: Studio Ghibli/Wild Bunch
For our complete Toronto International Film Festival coverage, click here.
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