The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)
Director/Story – Michael Dudok de Wit, Screenplay – Michael Dudok de Wit & Pascale Ferran, Producers – Pascal Caucheteux, Vincent Maraval, Gregoire Sorlat & Toshio Suzuki, Music – Laurent Perez Del Mar, Animation Supervisor – Jean-Christophe Lie, Animation – Prima Linea Productions. Production Company – Wild Bunch/Studio Ghibli/Why Not Productions/CN4 Productions/Arte France Cinema/Belvision.)
A shipwrecked man washes up on a desert island where he has only the other animals there for company. He befriends a red turtle, which then transforms into a woman. The two enjoy life together and have a son.
The Red Turtle is the first ever co-production for Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki’s home base. Ghibli have made films with other Japanese animators but only those that have emerged from in-house. The Red Turtle is made by Belgian animator Michael Dudok de Wit who, though he is 63 when this film comes out, had only previously made half-a-dozen animated shorts. Admittedly, one of these, Father and Daughter (2000), won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Dudok de Wit toured the Ghibli studios in 2008 where Miyazaki reportedly became a fan of Father and Daughter, resulting in this international co-production.
If you were to look for a comparison you could call The Red Turtle a version of Robinson Crusoe (1719) by way of the The Silent One (1984), the New Zealand film about a boy who befriends a sea turtle. Although this is a version where the turtle also turns into a woman and they settle down and have a child together. It’s The Silent One maybe slid over into a selkie drama. The Red Turtle makes intriguing comparison to the recent also Belgian-made Robinson Crusoe/The Wild Life (2016), which similarly had a castaway on an island surrounded by anthropomorphised animals, even though the two films could not exist more at opposite ends from each other in style.
The Red Turtle is possibly one of the most minimalist animated films I have ever watched. Everything from the spareness of the artwork to the lack of dialogue (none), the lack of characters (only three and assorted animals) seems intended to radiate simplicity. Even though it runs to 80 minutes, it feels more as though it is a short film than a feature. For all that, the film has a big and expansive canvas – stretching to widescreen shots to take in sea, sky, island and the changes of weather. There is no real story or drama to the film – the most dramatic it ever gets is a tsunami that strikes the island in the last quarter of the show. The film has a slow, genteel contemplativeness – the style kept making me think of a traditional Japanese woodcut – as the story moves through arrival, pairing, birth and eventually death in a very natural arc.