In just 80 minutes and with absolutely no dialogue at all, the incredibly beautiful animated fable “The Red Turtle” runs the gamut of the life experience and evokes the presence of God watching over our existence. It’s breathtaking.
The Dutch director and animator Michael Dudok de Wit brought his hand drawn work to Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese studio that spawned Hayao Miyazaki and his spiritual, life affirming films like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” What de Wit provides in meditative, thoughtful and dreamy filmmaking on par with Ingmar Bergman, Studio Ghibli gives “The Red Turtle” a deep connection to nature, a hint of whimsy and curiosity.
“The Red Turtle” opens with a man literally adrift and in peril. Lost at sea, he washes up on a deserted island and enacts his survival instincts to plot his escape. de Wit stages remarkable, full-figured shots that frame the man opposite to his environment. They’re lonely and empty, but impressive in scope, and when the background is sparse, he makes up for it with rustling winds and rocks alerting the man’s presence with each step. In one moment he tumbles into a narrow pit between two rock cliff faces and lands in a secluded pool below. The walls are too steep to climb, so he quickly acts to find an underwater escape route, only to nearly get stuck before emerging on the other end and swimming to the surface. There’s always a sense of life and death urgency at stake here, even when he’s only surveying the land.
The man decides to harvest the island’s massive bamboo forest in order to craft rafts to make his escape. His first attempt fails when an unseen force rattles the bottom of his raft and sends him back to the shore. A bigger raft produces the same result, and he finds his adversary to be a massive red turtle. It crawls up on the shore, and once on land, the man takes advantage, flipping it helpless on its back until it dies.
From here, the rest is best left unsaid, but this brutal act instills in the man a newfound respect for nature and life. He comes to accept that some things are written and best left undisturbed. Finding happiness sometimes is as simple as accepting a vision and plan for your life rather than always fighting against it.
“The Red Turtle” works because de Wit’s story has such eloquence and simplicity. With no backstory for the man or words to complicate his character, “The Red Turtle” has purity as a fable. And all of its action, and the film has a lot of excitement, whether in the form of a dreamy bridge to the heavens or a titanic tsunami that threatens to overwhelm the island, remains purely visceral and unexpected.
But “The Red Turtle’s” charm is all Ghibli’s. The man’s only companions are scuttling little hermit crabs that emerge from the sand. They’re whimsical little monsters not unlike the black soot ball sprites in “Spirited Away.” At one point they all gather on the shore as the man makes his escape, and they feel forlorn despite barely emoting at all. They don’t advance the story, but they color the universe. It shows there are always fascinating things taking place just beneath the surface.
I can count on maybe two hands the few films, books, games and albums that have made me believe there is a God. Those stories are rarely this contained and simple in expressing their deepest spirituality.