Few artistic collaborations yield the perfect synthesis of sensibilities found in “The Red Turtle,” a touching animated ode to the cycle of life directed by acclaimed Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit with the assistance of Japan’s Studio Ghibli. In tune with Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-winning short “Father and Daughter,” this slim, wordless feature offers another touching odyssey about loneliness and the resilience of family bonds. At the same time, it showcases the best ways in which Studio Ghibli productions maintain a certain elegant simplicity that points to deeper truths. This is a quiet little masterpiece of images, each one rich with meaning, that collectively speak to a universal process.
On the most basic level, the premise of “The Red Turtle” would be best described as Robinson Crusoe meets “All is Lost,” as it follows a nameless island castaway of dubious origins attempting to make do with his deserted new home. However, Dudok de Wit’s script — co-written by Pascale Ferran, whose otherworldly drama “Bird People” operates on a similar ethereal plane — builds this initial setup into a series of majestic, fantastical developments that press further and further into the allegorical realm.
But the movie strikes a symbolic note from its very first images, as the wayward character tumbles through a series of violent waves, eventually arriving at a barren, sandy landscape filled with rocks and trees but little else. In short order, his situation goes from bad to worse, as he navigates a trepidatious underwater cave and scrounges sustenance. The delicate hand-drawn animation imbues the plain, charcoal-drawn gold-and-blue scenery with a storybook feel that helps set the stage for the more audacious twists to come.
Just as our hero faces a desperate scenario, seeing visions in the dead of night and screaming to the wind, he makes a break for it on a wooden raft — and abruptly encounters the hulking beast of the title. Back on the shore, the creature follows him home, leading to a magical twist that complicates the narrative once more. The details of the ensuing plot are so slim that too much description threatens to ruin its entire trajectory. Needless to say, the castaway finds the company of a woman and starts a family. No longer so alone, he adapts to a new sense of security, only to face a whole new set of developments that threatens the island’s future as a whole. Even in this majestic universe, stability is a myth.
Story matters less in “The Red Turtle” than the expressionistic moments strewn throughout. Dudok de Wit never lacks for visual inspiration, enriches his island setting with a Greek chorus of crabs skittering across the sand and a fleet of sea turtles that steadily become the guardians to this self-made kingdom. At night, the colors fade to shades of gray, as the island residents gaze up at the moon; the deep greens of the inner forest shimmer with bright-red hues. Capturing the island life both from intimate closeups and high above, Dudok de Wit orchestrates a geographical orientation that allows the world to adhere to a wondrous internal logic. Even a series of miraculous twists seem to emerge organically from this textured world, merging the clarity of their symbolism with an emotional specificity that requires no heavy analysis. The movie speaks in its own enlightened voice.
The success of “The Red Turtle” marks a well-timed victory for Studio Ghibli at a transitional moment: It has reached completion not long after the concluding output of its two biggest names, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. While not aping the style of those long-established masters, “The Red Turtle” displays a similar attentiveness to making profound gestures without an iota of overstatement. With hardly more than a handful of shouts and grunts, “The Red Turtle” elicits powerful ideas about the struggle for contentment at every turn. Words are never enough, but “The Red Turtle” finds a way to rise above them.
“The Red Turtle” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.