A quietly perceptive and rather matter-of-fact metaphor on embracing instead of rejecting one’s destiny, Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit’s narrative feature The Red Turtle is the poetic final product of a decade long process. Co-produced by Studio Ghibli, a studio whose patrilineal founders like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were clear inspirations for de Wit (who nabbed an Academy Award in 2000 for the short “Father and Daughter”), this plays like Robinson Crusoe as magical realism in a hybrid tale beginning with man vs. nature then morphing into man vs. himself.
Winning a Special Jury Prize following its premiere in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, du Wit also went on to score an Oscar and Cesar nod for Best Animated Film. With Takahata serving as creative producer, Jean-Christophe Lie as supervising animator, and co-written by director Pascale Ferran, de Wit amassed an impressive pedigree behind the scenes in this gently administered narrative depicting nature’s influence on the human experience.
A man, lost at sea, is washed ashore a tiny island, where only a host of sand crabs are around to keep him company. Building a raft from the trunks of trees, he valiantly sets off to sea, only to have his vessel immediately destroyed by something in the water. Swimming back to shore, he collects himself, and begins working on another raft. Again, the situation is repeated. Eventually, the man discovers the creature impeding his progress is a giant red turtle. Unwisely, the turtle wanders onto shore, allowing the man to turn it on its backside, where the creature dies a slow death. And then, something mysterious happens.
Like a tropical version of Adam and Eve, de Wit’s The Red Turtle bears thematic comparisons to Pascale Ferran’s previous feature, 2014’s Bird People, an enigmatic drama wherein its main protagonists transmogrify into winged sparrows, the film’s perspective switching to their observations in new form.
We don’t know any details about the presumably shipwrecked man, as he isn’t granted a device with which communication can transpire. Without a native character like Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, a reconstituted volleyball like Wilson of Cast Away, or even the animated corpse of Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man, de Wit boils this scenario down to the dramatic essentials of survival. And then, inexplicably, becomes something else entirely as the dead carcass of the turtle becomes a woman with whom he can propagate. Although not quite the passionate romance of Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away, the man becomes content on the island, no longer alone. Allowed to teach his son survival tactics, their mostly peaceful existence is broken intermittently, such as by a harrowing tsunami which engulfs the island.
Although the score by Laurent Perez del Mar is sometimes too grand for such a slight narrative, to the point where it becomes overbearing, this otherwise silent film (save grunts and snorts of frustration or displeasure) is more a meditative reverie on life as a shared experience. The titular turtle becomes a metaphor, a symbol for seeing and appreciating the wonders of what’s right in front of us, perhaps not as something we think we want, but something we need.
Sony releases their award winning animated title in high definition 1.85:1 with 5.1 DTS-HD Audio. Picture and sound quality are masterful in this transfer, which plays well on a smaller screen. Michael Dudok de Wit is on hand for an audio commentary track, and several other bonus features are also available.
The Birth of The Red Turtle:
This hour long feature documents the making of The Red Turtle and the intricate details which went into every aspect of the film, from the construction of the island, to the human and animal characters.
The Secrets of The Red Turtle:
This seventeen minute segment find Michael Dudok de Wit displaying and explaining his creative process.
The Red Turtle at AFI Fest Q&A:
This twenty minute Q+A took place with Michael Dudok de Wit following the film’s screening at the 2016 AFI Film Festival.
Effortless and simplistic, The Red Turtle is an accomplished debut from Michael Dudok de Wit.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆