The Red Turtle (impressions)
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18 May 2016
By Eric Kohn
Michaël Dudok de Wit's poignant, wordless feature is a magical ode to the cycle of life.
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.
Los Angeles Times
17 November 2016
By Kenneth Turan
"The Red Turtle” is a visually stunning poetic fable, but there’s more on its mind than simply beauty.
The first full-length work by Oscar-winning Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit and a prize-winner at Cannes, this is an immersive, meditative animated feature that is concerned with the rhythms of the natural world and the mysteries and wonders of ordinary life.
With a simple, uncluttered visual look that manages to be realistic as well as gorgeous, “The Red Turtle’s” story of a nameless man shipwrecked on an uninhabited island has no lack of dramatic adventures and threatening events.
But, as befits a dialogueless work that mixes Laurent Perez del Mar’s fluid score with the ambient sounds of the physical world, “The Red Turtle” intends to enlarge our spirit as well as dazzle us, and in this it succeeds.
Dudok De Wit, who won the best animated short Oscar in 2000 for the lovely and moving “Father and Daughter,” was in fact perfectly content to avoid features altogether until he received an offer he couldn’t refuse, an email so unexpected he initially wondered if it was a prank.
As he related in an interview at Cannes, the animator got an out-of-the-blue message from Studio Ghibli co-founder and legendary Japanese director Isao Takahata (“The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” “Grave of the Fireflies”) offering him the chance to be the first non-Japanese animator to make a film for the revered studio. “His participation,” Dudok de Wit said simply, “meant I must make a feature.”
Someone who prefers to work slowly with a small team, Dudok de Wit spent nine years on “The Red Turtle,” at one point bringing in top French screenwriter Pascale Ferran (who shares adaptation credit with the director) to fine tune the story.
Though “The Red Turtle” has strong parable elements, dealing finally with the very nature of existence, Dudok de Wit has taken care to make the film’s presentation as vividly real as it is symbolic.
The director even went so far as to live on one of the smaller Seychelles islands, taking literally thousands of photos that proved invaluable to the team of animators working on “Red Turtle’s” look and feel.
The film opens with an unnamed man being tossed and turned on a stormy sea, the lone survivor, presumably, of an unseen shipwreck. He washes ashore, Robinson Crusoe-style, on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere.
Happy to be alive, the man gradually explores his refuge, climbing its highest point, swimming in its coastal pools, discovering plentiful food and water but realizing, except for a Greek chorus of curious sand crabs, that he is completely alone.
Determined to leave the island and rejoin the world’s humanity, the man painstakingly builds a raft, slowly joining bamboo stalk to bamboo stalk and even fashioning a serviceable sail.
But he doesn’t account for an enormous ocean-going red turtle, which gives the man a baleful reptilian look and definitely has ideas of its own, which is about all anyone should know plot-wise about how this singular endeavor plays out.
What should be known is that the beauty of “The Red Turtle’s” images holds us and pulls us in. Though that turtle itself was so huge it had to be computer animated, everything else was done by hand using Cintiq, a digital pen that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor.
The island’s lush forests and expansive open spaces, the ocean’s superb turquoise immensity, they’re all depicted with the kind of visual grace that makes it clear why Studio Ghibli knew Dudok de Wit’s work would be a good fit.
It is the gift of “The Red Turtle” to simply unfold as it’s experienced by its nameless protagonist. It is less the adventure of a lifetime than the adventure of life, with all the wonder that implies.
15 January 2017
By Chuck Bowen
A pointed simplicity governs The Red Turtle, one that's typical of many survival tales. Watching the film, viewers may wonder why a man must become shipwrecked in order to discover the pleasing, reciprocal catch-and-release of existing in sync with his habitat. The filmmakers aren't interested in the danger of washing up on a deserted island though, and they aren't exactly drawn to the innovations or evolutions necessary for a presumably first-world male to exist in such a landscape. The Red Turtle isn't Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away, as it's after metaphorical game of a different stripe.
Director Michael Dudok de Wit is drawn to transcendental refinement, seeking to provide us refuge from the excess of our world, offering an animated film that serves as a coincidental complement to recent articles boasting of the need to own less in these imperiled times. The filmmaker also quietly refutes the debauched cynicism of the mainstream American children's film, which is neurotically terrified of boring audiences, abounding in frenetic CGI images and jokey paeans to proper reproduction and consumerism, with a twist of topicality to smooth our politically correct hair in place.
There are no frills in The Red Turtle. The film's protagonist, a young man on an island, has no name. There's no dialogue, except for a few guttural exclamations. Moment to moment, there doesn't appear to be a plot in a traditional sense, though the cumulative shape of the film reveals a symmetry that might be indebted to the work of Yasujirō Ozu. The animation is reminiscent of the films of producer Studio Ghibli, though even more pared, with the foreground and background of images often demarcated by a boldly direct line of horizon, of the sort that one might learn to draw in an introductory sketching class. Splashes of big, bright colors often dominate the frame, using symbolism that any child will recognize: green for the forest of the trees, blue for the ocean, a sandy off-white for the beach.
These techniques slow down our biorhythms, lulling us into a quasi-dream state that magnifies our sensitivity. We're allowed to revel in textures so broad they acquire a paradoxical subtlety, with recurring notes and flourishes, such as the crabs that serve as the man's Greek chorus, or the multi-appendage-d worm that crawls over his feet. Gestures are imbued in The Red Turtle with resounding power. When a giant red sea turtle swims up to the man as he pushes away from the island on a raft, we're open to the animal's majesty, its otherness conveying a sense of awesome and beautiful mystery. The turtle thwarts the man's escape efforts, though its face has been etched with lines that convey poignant, matter-of-fact benevolence.
The man is alone, terrified, and trying to rejoin humanity, and so the turtle's actions enrage him. One day, he sees the turtle struggling on the beach and commits a shocking act of aggression: He hits the animal over the head with a reed he's fashioned from the bamboo trees that grow in the nearby forest, and flips the turtle over on its back and contemptuously jumps on its chest. This scene is tame as far as on-screen violence goes, but our guard has been relaxed by Dudok de Wit's formal ingenuity, by the peacefulness of the realm and by the ageless grace of the turtle. The man isn't evil or callous, and he soon regrets his actions, attempting to shelter the beached turtle from the punishing sun, giving it water and kindness. His remorse is rewarded, revealing The Red Turtle to be an existential fairy tale: The turtle turns into a gorgeous and tender red-headed woman, and the two forge a classical nuclear-familial life in a place that evolves from prison to paradise.
In the end, though, you may miss the turtle, which brings to mind what Marlene Dietrich famously said about the beast in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. For a while, one may wonder if the woman is a hallucination of the man's—a way for him to evade his guilt while quelling his isolation. After all, he's had other hallucinations, which are color-coded in black and white, though the film's ending could be said to argue against this fantastic interpretation. Either way, the man's one murderous impulse begets a life of empathy—of balance. A heartbreaking, astonishingly poetic ending further challenges our human-centric absorption, suggesting that this rhapsodic life of paradise wasn't the man's dream, but the turtle's.
18 January 2017
By Jocelyn Noveck
When was the last time an animated film actual lowered your pulse rate?
In its typical Hollywood form, an animated feature is usually the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush — a frantic barrage of colors and movement and jokes and sounds.
It's safe to say that "The Red Turtle," a fortuitous collaboration between Japan's famed Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator-director Michael Dudok de Wit, is very, very different. A fable, beautifully drawn in calm, soothing colors, it doesn't even have dialogue, let alone a throbbing soundtrack. Those sounds you hear are the sounds of silence, and eventually they become hypnotic.
As Dudok de Wit tells it, he received an email out of the blue in 2006 from the vaunted animation studio, asking if he'd be interested in working on his first feature (the director is known for his animated shorts.) He was, and he came up with the story of a man cast away on a deserted island.
The director's research took him to his own deserted island, in the Seychelles, where he shot thousands of photographs. He wanted to recreate the feeling of how time stands still in such a place. He spent nine years creating that animated world. And you can tell.
The film begins with a roiling sea. A man is lost in the waves; we don't know how he got there. Finally, he washes up on a tranquil island, inhabited seemingly only by a few friendly crabs on the beach.
Exploring the rocky cliffs, he slips and falls into a crevasse, and seems about to drown in the water below when he steels his nerves, dives deeper down, and finds a way out. Slowly, in this way, he learns how to cope with the forces of nature around him. And slowly we relax, too, into the rhythms of this natural world.
There are some lovely greens and blues and grays here, but unlike many animated films, the palette is limited and the colors fairly muted — as they are in life. It's beautiful, but we also know that the man — of course we don't know his name, or anything about him — aches to find a way back to civilization.
He builds an impressive raft and sets sail, only to have some unknown underwater force — could it be a shark? — destroy it and send him gasping to the shore. He rebuilds the raft and tries again, but the same force destroys it once more.
It turns out this is no shark, but a big, beautiful red turtle that is thwarting our man's dream of escape. But why? And how will this confrontation end?
It's tempting to continue recounting the plot here, but this is one of those films where the less you know beforehand, the better. Suffice it to say that as our main character learns to be patient with nature, we too sense the need to slow down and wait for our own gratification.
Of course nature can be terrifying, too, in sudden ways, and so another thing this expressive film manages to convey is how vulnerable man is to the caprices of nature. Finally, we're also asked to contemplate our attitudes toward death — but now we're really getting ahead of ourselves. No more plot revelations here, other than to say that the entire cycle of life is lovingly portrayed.
After watching "The Red Turtle," you might find yourself checking out flights to your own deserted island. Especially now, with so much turbulence in the headlines, you could do worse than submit to 80 minutes of watching crabs crawl in the sand and feeling some cool ocean breezes — if you pay close enough attention, you can actually sense them wafting through the screen.
The New York Times
19 January 2017
By A.O. Scott
Water is one of the great achievements of modern digital animation. Recent Hollywood movies like “Moana” and “Finding Dory” display glistening waves, plump raindrops and churning ocean depths with gaudy trade-show flash. “The Red Turtle,” a feature by the Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, hews to a quieter, proudly analog (or at least analog-evoking) approach. The waves that toss the nameless protagonist, a presumably shipwrecked fellow with black-dot eyes and an inky beard, are proudly two-dimensional, and look as if they had been rendered with a pen and a brush rather than a mouse and a software application.
The film, a French-Belgian-Japanese co-production made under the auspices of Studio Ghibli (home of the great Hayao Miyazaki) in Tokyo is also notable, at least in contrast to most American commercial animation, for the absence of celebrity voices or, indeed, of any human speech at all. The score, by Laurent Perez del Mar, does include some wordless choral vocalizing, but the story, like the visual style, is simple and elemental, like a picture book that needs no words.
The story has a wide-eyed, mutedly whimsical charm, with a light washing of eco-mysticism. Some of what happens may, on reflection, seem a little disturbing. The hapless mariner washes ashore — as such sailors usually do — on a deserted island, a tropical, rock-capped outcropping with wide, sandy beaches flanking a dense bamboo forest. There is a freshwater lagoon, and a few animals around for company and food, including sea lions and a squadron of quizzical crabs that silently and collectively perform the necessary cute-cartoon-sidekick duties.
The red sea turtle, an enigmatic and beautifully drawn creature that seems to have some kind of grudge against our hero, shows up just when you start to wonder if it will. Every time the man tries to leave the island, the turtle smashes his raft and knocks him back over the sandbar onto the beach. This leads to a confrontation that nudges the story all the way into the realm of fable. I won’t say exactly what happens, except to note that it’s both enchanting and a little queasy-making. But new characters do appear, fleshing out the drama and the imagery. Events take place that allow Mr. Dudok de Wit to make the most of his subdued palette and his spare, lyrical draftsmanship.
“The Red Turtle” practices a minor, gentle magic. It wants you to smile and say, “Ahh,” rather than gasp and say, “Wow.” But somehow the understatement can feel a bit overdone, as if the film were hovering over you, awaiting an expression of admiration. And it is hard not to admire the earnest artistry on display, even though it may also be hard to be as moved or enraptured as you suspect you should.
20 January 2017
By Mark Jenkins
Set on an apparently tropical island, The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge) exalts the cycle of life and celebrates the beauty of nature. Yet this dialogue-free animated fable could hardly be more anthropocentric.
The man around whom the film revolves is introduced literally at sea, battling to survive the stormy waves of a slate-colored ocean. The sketchily drawn, button-eyed survivor soon washes up on a remote isle. It's inhabited mostly by insects and crustaceans — the sand crabs provide low-key comic relief — although sometimes a larger creature comes ashore.
Water and food are available, and shelter is not an issue, since the climate is warm. Nonetheless, the castaway endeavors to leave, building a succession of rafts that are quickly destroyed by an unseen force. Eventually, the man encounters the creature that's preventing his escape. It's a gigantic red turtle.
Soon after, somehow, a woman appears. The pretty redhead's arrival reconciles the exile to remaining on the island, and the couple raises a son. The trio's existence is the human family in microcosm, without any pesky siblings or in-laws. It could be said, though, that the sea turtles that offer assistance during emergencies are cousins.
London-based Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit spent a decade making The Red Turtle, which is hand-drawn (mostly on electronic tablets, not paper ones). It's the first feature from a filmmaker who won an Oscar 17 years ago for Father and Daughter, a short that was also without words.
Dudok de Wit was recruited and mentored by Isao Takahata, of Japan's Studio Ghibli, which is best known for such tales of nature and transformation as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. The Franco-Japanese collaboration's supervising animator is Jean-Christophe Lie, who worked on The Triplets of Belleville.
The Japanese influence is apparent in both the movie's look and its story. The script, by Dudok de Wit and Bird People writer-director Pascale Ferran, features a bamboo forest and a catastrophic tsunami. The latter is one of several sequences that's suspenseful enough for a big-budget action movie. (Alas, Laurent Perez del Mar's drippy score also gives off a major-studio vibe.)
For a wordless South Seas idyll, the movie is quite eventful. Panicky moments and angry outbursts contrast the leisurely pace of island life and the artfully rendered sea and sky. The animators don't overplay the loveliness, preferring subdued colors punctuated by the occasional vivid blue. Red rarely appears, and the many dream sequences are as gray as the night from which they emerge.
Unless, of course, the entire movie is a dream. After all, things occur here that would be impossible in a non-animated cosmos. But if The Red Turtle is a fantasy, it's not one in which man achieves concord with nature.
Instead, after initially frustrating the castaway, the sea, the island, and their creatures accommodate themselves to him. Although viewers barely get to know the man, they can clearly see he's the center of this hand-drawn universe. That seems a curious outlook for movie that's being released just as climate scientists report that 2016 was the third year in a row to be the hottest ever recorded.
The Christian Science Monitor
20 January 2017
'Red' is the first international co-production of Japan's famed Studio Ghibli, and in its hushed evocation of nature’s mystic mysteries, it summons at its best the work of the studio’s founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
By Peter Rainer
The delicacy of the animated movie “The Red Turtle,” which is directed by the Oscar-winning Dutch-British illustrator and animator Michael Dudok de Wit, is so quietly breathtaking that to call it a tone poem doesn’t quite do the film justice. This is the first international co-production of Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, and in its hushed evocation of nature’s mystic mysteries, it summons at its best the work of the studio’s founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. But Dudok de Wit’s sense of form and color is even more minimalist than the work of those masters. Ten years in the making, “The Red Turtle” is both homage and sui generis.
The film begins with a shipwreck in which a passenger – a sailor, perhaps – is violently swept ashore a deserted tropical island in the watery middle of nowhere. His frantic attempts to build a raft from bamboo logs continually come to naught because every time he casts off, a large sea creature – as we soon learn, a gigantic turtle with a bright red shell – splinters the conveyance to smithereens.
The red turtle does not seem malevolent, just persistent. There is a reason it wants the man to remain on the island, and, after exacting his revenge on the turtle, the film moves ever more decisively into transcendent realms of fantasy. The transformation of the turtle into the beautiful young woman who will become the man’s mate is as satisfying as anything in a Hans Christian Andersen fable.
This transformation is doubly welcoming because, up until this point, Dudok de Wit has achingly evoked the man’s deep, spooky aloneness. We’ve seen this situation before, from “Robinson Crusoe” to “Cast Away,” but more than almost any other film I’ve ever seen, “The Red Turtle,” which is entirely wordless, expresses the isolation of being forbiddingly alone with nature. (The soundtrack is vibrant with the rush of wind and water and birds.)
With its lush greens and barren beaches, the island is teeming with tiny sand crabs that scurry sideways, like little windup sentries. The ocean is flush with creatures that are like underwater emissaries from some aqueous kingdom. When the man looks up at a starry night sky and hallucinates seeing a string quartet playing on the moonlit beach, he is swooned by both the beauty and the terrors of his predicament.
Dudok de Wit and his co-writer, Pascale Ferran, don’t sentimentalize the man’s predicament, even after he and his wife have a playful baby boy. The dangers of the island – the rocky crevices from which one can slip from great heights into near-inescapable pits – are ever-present. And because we have witnessed the transformation of the red turtle into the red-haired woman, we are always aware that the story carries a fantastical dimension.
We wait to see how it plays out. The film may run only 80 minutes, but it seems longer – and I mean that in a good way. Shots of the island are often held for their own sweet sake, to let the stillness of the mood sink in. The people are often filmed from very high angles in order to emphasize their insignificance in nature’s grand scheme. When something explosively dramatic occurs, such as a tsunami that wipes out much of the island, it’s as if paradise itself had been despoiled.
But this paradise was never halcyon – this is no “Blue Lagoon.” Behind even the movie’s most transcendent tableaux is the lurking fear that this communion will vanish as decisively as it arose. Perhaps this is why Dudok de Wit has chosen for so much of his film a grayish palette inspired by Japanese ink and watercolor prints. He wants the look of the film to have a ghostly evanescence, and what’s remarkable is how, utilizing such a minimal color scheme, he is able to convey such beauty.
“The Red Turtle,” a rare “children’s film” that works equally well for adults, doesn’t have the easily definable meanings that often attach to classic fairy tales. At times, it can seem overly elusive, starting with its main character – a man with unplaceable origins who, from first to last, is a blank slate. But as I eased into the film’s hypnotic swing, this ambiguousness became more and not less attractive. “The Red Turtle” benefits from being open to all sorts of possibilities and interpretations because we sense that Dudok de Wit respects our imaginings. He allows them to take shape right alongside his own.
23 January 2017
By David Fear
Studio Ghibli's stunning shipwreck-survival story combines fantasy, fairy tales and philosophical questions with eye-popping visuals
You won't meet the title character until almost a quarter of the way in – by which point in Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit's sublime, Studio Ghibli-sponsored survivalist story, you've watched the movie's unnamed shipwrecked hero endure crashing waves, hunger-induced hallucinations and other Man v. Nature trials. This minimalist Robinson Crusoe falls down cliffs and into crevasses, swim's underwater through a claustrophobe's nightmare of a tunnel and cracks open mangoes for sustenance, all without saying a word. (The movie is almost completely dialogue-less, unless you consider the occasional whelp of joy or scream into the abyss to be "dialogue.") Mostly, what our man does is construct makeshift rafts out of the island's abundant bamboo. When he takes his vessel out, something underneath the water keeps battering it from below. He washes ashore. He starts again.
Then, after we've seen this scraggly protagonist brave the deep-bluest seas and traipse through the most emerald-greenest forests, we finally see his nemesis: a giant red sea turtle, calmly staring the bewildered gent down before dashing his hopes one more time. (Feel free to gasp at the sheer beauty of the image – one of many such whoa-inducing moments in this near-perfect work.) The next day, upon seeing the brightly colored creature lumbering on to the beach, the man grabs a large stick and breaks it over the reptile's head. He flips the animal on to its back and walks off. Later, wracked with guilt and shame, he returns to the spot. The turtle is dead. Then its shell cracks in half and splits open. And suddenly, in one fell swoop, we've fully entered Hans Christian Andersen territory.
From there, Dudok de Wit's fairy tale about family, love, fate and the idea that, when life hands you desert-island lemons you should make second-chance mystical-beast lemonade, transforms from something ambitious and gorgeous to absolutely profound. The visuals still remain dizzyingly beautiful – a tsunami set piece looks like a Hokusai woodcut come to life; even the movie's moody gray palettes feel eye-popping – and the animation still sticks to a clean, fluid style with characters who appear to have stepped out of Tintin comic strips. But the simple way it takes on the familiar concepts of companionship, growing up and letting go, in a way that both children and adults can unpack without losing the emotional complexity, seems quietly groundbreaking. The lack of dialogue may skew towards the experimental, but The Red Turtle's humanity is completely experiential in a way that matches the best Studio Ghibli joints. You understand why the legendary Japanese animation house chose Dudok de Wit as its first European collaborator. He's an artist after Hayao Miyazaki's own heart. And with this extraordinary movie, he'll own yours.
San Francisco Chronicle
26 January 2017
By Walter Addiego
One of the charms of “The Red Turtle” is a chance to savor the joys of clean and simple animation suggestive of the old hand-drawn school, which is part of what makes the film, a quiet, humanistic fable, one of the best of its kind in memory. Directed by a Dutch-born London filmmaker, it’s a co-production of Japan’s esteemed Studio Ghibli, and that’s quite an endorsement.
The director, Michaël Dudok de Wit, won an Oscar in 2001 for his animated short “Father and Daughter” (and “The Red Turtle” was just nominated for best animated feature). For his new film, the filmmaker has come up with a Robinson Crusoe tale with such resonance that you’d swear he was working from some venerable folk story. But “The Red Turtle” is the product of Dudok de Wit’s imagination, with the aid of screenwriter Pascale Ferran.
The plot (no spoilers follow) is as minimalistic as the movie’s animation style. A man is shipwrecked on an apparently deserted jungle island. There’s enough sustenance to keep him going while he assembles a raft to try to escape. But there seems to be a seagoing enemy intent on thwarting his several attempts to do so — not a white whale, but a large red sea turtle.
All this is told, like the entire movie, without dialogue.
Eventually our hero encounters a woman on the island, and wouldn’t you know it, the two of them conceive a son, who grows up, as children do. The joys of family life in paradise! But there are challenges on the way, including a monster storm — to say nothing of the inevitable passage of time.
The emphasis is on the physicality of the family’s experiences, with the allegorical element conveyed in what amounts to a whisper. If you want to see it as a parable, that’s up to you. In all ways, the film plays its hand gently.
The only CGI in the movie is the titular turtle itself — the rest was done digitally on a Cintiq tablet, resulting in that venerable hand-drawn look. Dudok de Wit’s drawing style here has overtones of Hergé’s Tintin, just to give you a general reference.
For some adults, the film may occasionally stray a bit in the direction of whimsy, but I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker. As to taking children to see “The Red Turtle,” I’d say young viewers prone to restlessness — or unhappy with anything but the kind of overwhelming CGI effects popular in animation these days — might not be the best audience. Kids with a sense of openness, however, and some patience, will get it.
9 February 2017
By Michael Phillips
We're born; life washes us up on various shores; we build our sand castles and navigate the years; we die. From this four-part miniseries we call human existence, the Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit has created "The Red Turtle," a product of de Wit's collaboration with Studio Ghibli, Japan's house of plaintive animation mastery.
There are no words spoken in this story, and none are needed. A man, apparently shipwrecked and battered by ocean waves, wakes up on the sand of a tropical island. The island is uninhabited by homo sapiens, but there's life everywhere: tiny turtles, skittering crabs, various birds crisscrossing high overhead.
The man pulls bamboo logs out of the nearby forest and attempts to make a vessel to take him home again. After two attempts, and various, looming reminders of his odds of ever leaving this place, his frustration peaks. Then the low-keyed miracle of "The Red Turtle" appears. She is a raven-haired woman housed in the cracked shell of an enormous sea turtle. Is the man dreaming, just as he dreams of string quartets playing on the beach?
Using this mermaidlike fluke of newly fashioned mythology, filmmaker de Wit's directorial feature debut hasn't imagined anything revolutionary or especially inventive. Yet the grace, elegance, carefully muted color palette and gradual acknowledgment of life's milestones lift "The Red Turtle" far above the average so-called "family-friendly" animation. Nothing's rushed here, and nothing was rushed in its making. The filmmaker started writing in 2007, and spent time on one of the Seychelles islands near Madagascar for research. The credit for script and design goes to de Wit, with Jean-Christophe Lie serving as the film's chief animator.
Watching "The Red Turtle," one of this year's five animated features nominated for an Academy Award, is like falling into an 80-minute wormhole of spare artistry. It exists far from the world as we know it, and most of our kids know it, the one dominated by shrill, lippy cynicism packaged as entertainment. There is, I suppose, an element (some would say a heavy dose) of the medicinal in the style and mood here. As the castaway grows older, and enters an improbable phase of domestic life, the life lessons are tapped into place. But de Wit isn't a finger-wagger or a moralist. He's simply stating, in visual terms, that we must persist, and leave ourselves open to fantastical developments.
In his short film "Father and Daughter," de Wit followed a young girl through the decades, awaiting, doggedly, her father's return from the sea. Perhaps "The Red Turtle" is about that father, and what happened to him.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
9 February 2017
REVIEW: Despite no dialogue, Oscar nominee "Red Turtle" is profoundly touching.
By Colin Covert
You don’t need words to create poetry. Without spoken dialogue, the Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle,” a richly imagined French-Belgian animated drama created with the skillful assistance of Japan’s virtuoso animé enterprise Studio Ghibli, tells an emotionally deep, thematically rich story.
Kids and families are all but guaranteed to return home from the theater profoundly touched. And even moody souls whose hearts are three sizes too small must confess that animated films this spellbindingly beautiful are nearly impossible to find.
This metaphor for life’s promises and disappointments begins by following a man-vs.-nature adventure. As in “Robinson Crusoe” or “Cast Away,” a man is delivered onto the shore of an unpopulated minor island, battered nearly to death by fearsome waves before rolling unconscious on the sand.
In its first moments, the film earns our trust for its connection, however slender, to reality. As the man is tossed around like a rag doll in the water, the imagery is as precise and vivid as any documentary cameraman could hope to capture. His struggles are the authentic thrashing of a man whose nails can’t claw onto safety. The terror of his expression is completely appropriate and, I felt, contagious.
It must be a miracle that plants him on a tropical beach, the first of several wonders the film delivers to him — and us — without editorial comment. The footage falls into steady rhythms as the man explores a lush bamboo forest and climbs high hillsides to look for help. He is the sole human inhabitant of the domain, although there’s a bit of company, and occasional nourishment, from sea lions, birds, turtles and platoons of small crabs.
Most look rather small from the man’s perspective, just as he often appears to us. The film frequently shows him moving in the distance or through a god’s-eye view from far above. Racked by bad dreams, he resourcefully makes attempts to return to his lost home. They never work, and his humility grows.
In time he reconciles himself to living in this beautiful, challenging world. He must fend for himself, finding a balance between the things he fears — dislocation, separation, danger — and life’s simple pleasures.
I will not detail his subsequent fortunes, because any road map of the sweet and sad journey ahead would diminish its marvels. I will note that just as Adam did not remain alone in Eden forever, neither does the man.
Magical realism is a key resource in this film’s tool kit, artful, unadorned astonishments that never feel as if they belong in the surreal world of Lewis Carroll. Those flourishes of fantasy are used in ways that should be allowed to surprise and delight you on director Michael Dudok de Wit’s own terms.
With its near-silent everyman protagonist, the film is less a standard character study than a sensitive exploration of the rhythms of life from its delights to its decay. The film builds to an 11th-hour emotional release that feels candid and earned. With vast imagination, keen insight and deep compassion, the film is acutely focused on the earth to which we must return.
The term masterpiece is scarcely ever brought up in workaday film criticism, but how else can one define this visionary level of mastery?
I’ll say it: “The Red Turtle” is a masterpiece.
The Seattle Times
16 February 2017
By Moira Macdonald
Not a single intelligible word is spoken in Michael Dudok de Wit’s poignant animated drama “The Red Turtle,” and after a while that silence becomes companionable; you find, in this film, a restful space. In its artfully drawn frames, a simple and universal story unfolds. A man, shipwrecked, emerges from a stormy sea onto the beach of a remote, deserted island. Unable to escape, he lives out his life there, in the company of a magical woman who first appears in the form of a giant, adobe-red turtle.
It’s a fairy tale, to be sure, and not necessarily aimed at children, though kids with the patience for this film’s gentle pace might be fascinated by it. (Note, though, that in its current Seattle run, the film is only playing at a 21+ theater.) The magic, when it happens, seems almost matter-of-fact; that turtle, in the early-morning quiet light, is transformed, as if the lonely man’s dream had come true. (Desperate for companionship, he’s been hallucinating; at one point picturing an elegant string quartet playing on the beach.) They swim in the sea, her hair spreading under the water like a cloud of ink; they walk, they talk without words — a lost soul, suddenly found.
De Wit, whose 2001 film “Father and Daughter” won the Academy Award for best animated film (“The Red Turtle” is a nominee this year), fills the screen with painterly beauty. The sea seems to be perpetually changing color, with crashing waves seemingly made of green sea-glass giving way to sapphire-blue calm, or to the pungent orange of a sunset. A feathery flock of seagulls floats over a wash of mist; a multilayered gray sky seems to hang low from the weight of its clouds. A tiny chorus of sand crabs (if this were a Disney movie, they’d sing), etched as delicately as lace, appears and reappears, like a timeless part of the landscape.
All’s not entirely silent — the airy soundtrack is by composer Laurent Perez del Mar — but “The Red Turtle” knows when a breath is the only sound we need. “The Red Turtle” doesn’t answer the questions it raises, but it doesn’t need to; it’s about moonlight on the water, a hand held out to another, and the way a wave, rippling onto a shore, leaves no trace of its brief life.
The Austin Chronicle
17 February 2017
By Steve Davis
The simple story told in the near-wordless animated feature film The Red Turtle is almost biblical. Without any backstory, it opens with a speck of a man bobbing in a great watery expanse, buffeted by the waves of a storm-ravaged ocean that almost swallow him whole. Washed ashore on a deserted tropical island, the bedraggled castaway forages for food; his only companions are the scurrying crabs that shadow his every move on a lonely beach. Using bamboo cut from the island’s interior, he builds a large raft and sets sail for an unknown destination, but the voyage is quickly thwarted by an unseen being that destroys his makeshift vessel, shattering it to pieces. A second attempt ends similarly, but on the third unsuccessful try, he finally comes eye to eye with the creature that keeps sabotaging his departure, a giant sea tortoise with a scarlet-hued shell, a majestic tortue rouge. The connection between them is fleeting, but powerful. Back on the island, the frustrated man sees his mystical adversary come ashore and vengefully flips it on its back, leaving it to die in the blazing sun. But like Botticelli’s Venus sprung from a half-shell, a beautiful copper-haired woman later emerges from the split casing of the dead terrapin. She becomes his Eve, and the remainder of The Red Turtle recounts their years together on their secluded Eden. Who knows what it all means, or whether it’s intended to mean anything it all. But it sounds like something from an ancient myth, doesn’t it?
The film is directed and co-written by British-Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, who makes his feature-length film debut here. (De Wit won an animated short film Academy Award for “Father and Daughter” back in 2001; The Red Turtle is nominated this year in the category of animated feature film.) The animation is handsome and specific, and the colors (like Japanese watercolors) are evocatively peaceful, except for the sudden splash of red that marks the titular turtle’s initial appearance and the monochromatic shades of the exile’s dreams. Without the benefit of dialogue (the exclamation “Hey!” is the only word uttered in a handful of places in the film), The Red Turtle succeeds in conveying its narrative about devoted companionship without the need for language. Some may find the movie a bit obtuse in its innate lack of drama (though a devastating natural disaster occurs over midway through the film), while others may find poetic beauty in its guileless lack of complication. Whatever your perspective, there’s one thing for sure: The Red Turtle is unlike anything else you’ve seen in a while.
23 February 2017
By Peter Keough
Films in the “Robinson Crusoe” tradition, which include “Cast Away,” “The Martian,” and even “Swiss Army Man,” tend to be minimalist existential allegories about survival, solitude, freedom, and resourcefulness. From Japan’s Ghibli studio, Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit’s sublimely animated, Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle” adds to those topics the Disneyesque theme of the cycle of life — minus the Disney tendency toward platitudes and sentimentality.
Except maybe for the crabs, the tiny regimented critters who cutely accompany the film’s unnamed castaway once he is beached after whatever shipwreck or other disaster he has experienced. Fortunately, the crustaceans don’t break into song.
Instead, they are some of the minutely observed details in de Wit’s sweeping vistas and seascapes. Few films have used color and light with such acuity — from the near monochrome of moonlight on a desolate beach to the infinite, illuminated shades of green in a bamboo forest. The imagery suggests such disparate sources as Utagawa Hiroshige, Georges Seurat, and Caspar David Friedrich.
Sound (there is virtually no dialogue) adds to the vivid actuality of the experience — a distant tropical downpour approaches with an ominous rumble, and passes as a revivifying murmur of rain. Equally exquisite is the film’s subtle, eloquent score by Laurent Perez del Mar.
The effect is wondrous, a meticulously rendered phantasm, but despite the near paradisal surroundings, the castaway discovers — like his predecessor Adam — that it is not good that man should be alone. So after searching the island in a series of increasingly distant long shots and finding no one, he sets about making a bamboo raft to sail back to the world he left behind.
But something doesn’t want him to leave. Each time he sets sail, a creature from beneath the sea capsizes him. So he swims back and torturously assembles another craft, which suffers the same fate. Finally he howls with rage and despair at his Sisyphean task.
As in most stories of this kind, the castaway eventually finds someone — or something — to keep him company. Not to give anything away, but he ends up with better company than Wilson the soccer ball in “Cast Away,” or the corpse in “Swiss Army Man.” At first this pairing exhilarates, but, as often happens in life, things get needlessly complicated and melodramatic. At last an enigmatic clarity comes, and the ending is deeply moving.
The Capital Times (Madison, WI)
10 March 2017
By Rob Thomas
When is a Studio Ghibli film not a Studio Ghibli film?
“The Red Turtle” was co-produced by the legendary Japanese animation studio and bears its name in the credits. But it was not actually made there. Ghibli contracted with a British-Dutch director, Michael Dudok de Wit, to create the film, which was animated by the French studio Prima Linea.
And yet, despite its European heritage, the film bears all the hallmarks of a Studio Ghibli film like “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Spirited Away” — vibrant, hand-painted animation, a reverent approach to the natural world, and a sense that the spiritual, fantastic world is living right next to ours, if we choose to see it.
“The Red Turtle” is a rare creature, an 80-minute animated film with no dialogue (unless “Hey!” counts) that is both beautiful and harrowing, joyful and melancholy. It’s also one that refuses to explain itself, letting audiences decide the meaning of what they’ve seen.
The film opens with a man shipwrecked on a deserted island. As he struggles to survive, the film portrays him as a tiny figure in a vast world, whether that world is a seething sea, the island’s deep forest or its endless beach. The point of view emphasizes his loneliness. His only companions are the scuttling crabs who populate the beach and give the film much of its humor.
The castaway builds a raft to carry him to freedom, but the raft is smashed from below while out on the ocean and he has to swim back to shore. He builds a bigger raft and it’s smashed. He builds an even bigger one, and then sees the culprit — a stunning, scarlet-red giant turtle, about the size of a Prius.
Banished back to the beach yet again, the man fumes. Later catching the red turtle crawling up onto the beach to nest, the man exacts a terrible revenge. And then, unexpectedly, “The Red Turtle” shifts from a hard-edged, realistic tale of survival into a gently magical fable about transformation and atonement.
“The Red Turtle” is a simple, unhurried tale, maybe too unhurried for some audiences used to more action or, you know, words. But the nice thing about its elliptical, dialogue-free approach is that it reveals itself to every viewer, young or old, at exactly the same pace. When parents and children talk about it on the car ride home, the kids may have more answers than the grown-ups.
12 May 2016
By Peter Debruge
Cannes premiere is animation studio’s first external co-production
The dual geniuses behind Studio Ghibli, Japan’s most revered animation company, aren’t getting any younger. At age 75, “Spirited Away” director Hayao Miyazaki has all but retired, now focusing exclusively on short films, while “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” was 80-year-old Isao Takahata’s final feature.
That puts the studio in urgent need of younger talent to carry on their legacy — as tested with Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“When Marnie Was There”) and Goro Miyazaki (“From Up on Poppy Hill”). But it also inspired a one-of-a-kind project called “The Red Turtle,” which premieres this week in Cannes.
As Studio Ghibli’s first external co-production, “The Red Turtle” was made in France and directed by Dutch-born, London-based animator Michael Dudok de Wit, whose wordless Oscar-winning short “Father and Daughter” had become a favorite at Ghibli.
In pursuit of ways the company might innovate, producer Toshio Suzuki tasked French distributor Vincent Maraval with tracking down Dudok de Wit and convincing him to make a movie for Ghibli.Dudok de Wit was caught completely off-guard by the offer. He had no intention of ever directing a feature, instead preferring to make his hand-drawn, charcoal-based TV commercials and shorts almost entirely by himself. Though he was convinced no studio would allow him to make an entire feature his way, he respected Studio Ghibli’s work and took confidence in the execs’ enthusiasm.
“Right from the beginning, they made it very clear, the film would be made just like they make their own films: a director’s film, and the director would have final say,” recalls Dudok de Wit. He pitched them the story of a man who washes up on a desert island and must do battle with a mysterious sea turtle before getting on with his life.
For long stretches of the project, Dudok de Wit worked alone — though producers Wild Bunch and Prima Linea (the toon studio behind “Zarafa”) eventually paired him with screenwriter Pascale Ferran (“Bird People”) and recruited a team of animators from Angoulême, France, to realize his vision. Takahata himself visited regularly, offering beneficial feedback, even as he respected the director’s final say.
The resulting film looks nothing like other Ghibli projects, but is unmistakably the work of Dudok de Wit, whose charcoal textures and hand-drawn characters remain, as does the risky choice of telling a feature-length allegory without using a word of dialogue. There are few other animation studios on earth that give directors the kind of freedom Dudok de Wit enjoyed on “The Red Turtle,” and yet that independence is precisely what has historically made Ghibli strong — and would seem to be the key to the studio’s survival going forward, whether or not they ever try an international co-production again.
21 May 2016
By Liz Calvario
The Special Jury Prize when to "The Red Turtle" by Michaël Dudok de Wit. The immaculate film was considered one of the most beautiful features to arrive at the festival. The French-Japanese animated movie tells the story of a man shipwrecked at sea who becomes stranded on a deserted island inhabited by turtles, crabs and birds. He learns to live in isolation, until he comes upon a woman lost at sea and begins a life with her.
The complete list of winners:
Un Certain Regard Prize: Juho Kuosmanen, "The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki" Jury Prize: Kôji Fukada, "Harmonium" Best Director: Matt Ross, "Captain Fantastic" Best Screenplay: Delphine and Muriel Coulin, "The Stopover" Special Jury Prize: Michaël Dudok de Wit, "The Red Turtle"