It’s very, very unusual for Studio Ghibli to release a film not made entirely in-house but though the famous Japanese animation studio’s name features prominently in the marketing material for The Red Turtle, it’s Michaël Dudok de Wit who wrote and directed this production. Though his name is likely unfamiliar to most cinemagoers, Ghibli’s founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have long been fans of the UK-based Dutch animator (who won an Oscar for his 2000 animated short Father and Daughter), and in this breathtakingly wonderful film he repays their faith in him a thousand times over.
Containing not a single line of dialogue, de Wit’s tale is both comfortingly familiar and surreally off-kilter. The film opens with a nameless man being tossed to and fro on stormy waves. Washed up on the shore of an uninhabited island, his attempts to sail away on a homemade raft are repeatedly thwarted by a huge red turtle. Initially antagonistic, the two soon develop a surprising companionship. To say much more would be to spoil the film’s great mystery, but The Red Turtle operates as a kind of magical realist fable, one that looks for inspiration both from Japanese and western folk tales in a way that will make it recognisable to people the world over.
It’s not just the narrative that operates as a fusion between east and west either. So too does the animation, a seamless blend of hand-drawn and digital techniques which combines the ligne claire style of Tintin creator Hergé with gorgeously painted landscapes that are the hallmark of Ghibli films. De Wit’s use of colour is simply gorgeous, overlaying individual scenes with a consistent hue – whether it’s the blue-grey of storm-tossed seas, the verdant green beneath the forest canopy, the metallic glow of moonlight, or the red-gold of sunset. The lush imagery finds perfect accompaniment in Laurent Perez del Mar’s beautiful score, which flits between gentle woodwinds and soaring strings.
The island itself is an enchanting place, and some of the film’s most evocative moments focus on its natural rhythms, whether it’s baby turtles emerging from the sand to begin their first voyage to the sea, or rain hissing gently through the bamboo groves. The scuttling crabs that inhabit the beach act as the closest thing the film has to comic relief sidekicks, although to so name them does these wonderful little creatures a disservice, calling to mind as the phrase does more clownish cartoon creations. These crustaceans’ charms are far more subtle.
The island can be a tough place – nature is red in tooth and claw and not all those baby turtles or cute crabs make it through the film. The furious power of a tsunami is brought to life with the same visceral immediacy with which Ghibli recreated a ferocious fire in 2014’s The Wind Rises. But though the moments of violence can be unsettling, they are, ultimately, part of the natural cycle: the island picks up the pieces and moves on.
It’s that cycle of life and death which proves The Red Turtle‘s core theme. It acts as an allegory for a lifetime of experiences, a meditation on love, mortality and rebirth. Wordless it may be but the power of its visual storytelling renders it an uncommonly moving film – I confess to finding myself choked up by the final scene. It is a magnificent, transcendentally beautiful work of art.