Characters are the essence of a story, and The Red Turtle understands that. This latest offering made in partnership with wonderful Japanese animators Studio Ghibli – creators of Totoro, Spirited Away, and any number of emotional animated classics – understands this so well, in fact, that it decided to dispense with the dialogue and adhere to the principle that actions speak louder than words.
That’s right: The Red Turtle features no dialogue at all. There are no touching, heartfelt conversations; no fierce repudiations of a sneering villain’s nefarious machinations; no heated arguments or meandering spoken-aloud thought trains. Nor is there any narration. Save for the rare scattered “hey” or voiceless cry, this is a story told wholly without words.
Unsurprisingly, this places The Red Turtle into a very special category with only a few, select neighbors. Oh, sure, we’ve seen our fair share of Pixar shorts using purely physical interaction and whimsical soundtracks to weave a narrative, but those are what their name implies – short. How well can this possibly be sustained for the 80 minute running time of The Red Turtle?
Extremely well, as it turns out. Michael Dudok de Wit has produced a compelling narrative out of a lonely castaway, an isolated tropical island somewhere in the middle of an unknown ocean, and some extremely persistent marine wildlife. The castaway’s struggle as he seeks to survive and subsequently escape his island prison is engrossing without resorting to melodrama or the normal sort of “island survival” tropes you might expect from such a story. Our suspension of disbelief is rewarded with an unexpected turn about a quarter of the way in that is Ghibli through and through.
Naturally, the animation is excellent. The Red Turtle possesses a distinctive style that gives the feeling of a bunch of layered paper-cutout figures expertly laid out on a hand-colored background. The human figures have noses sharp enough to cut yourself on, and the starry night backgrounds are vast and all-encompassing. All around, the simplistic animation style complements the raw emotion of the narrative perfectly. Add to this the breathtaking soundtrack Laurent Perez Del Mar, and you have a big story born of small things.
This film is certainly deserving of the Studio Ghibli stamp. Still, once the film had run to its conclusion, I had the distinct feeling that I’d watched the longest animated short ever made. I’m not sure if this is a result of cinematic expectations-programming, or merely because The Red Turtle lacks something so basic and assumed in feature-length films that it feels like it can’t be one. It’s not so much something wrong with the film – though by the last ten minutes the story had already run its course – but it seems a testament to some aspect of cinema-dom that I should feel this way.
Nevertheless, The Red Turtle is an engaging, artful and beautiful film. It’s something far, far different from what you usually see in a movie theatre, and that’s no bad thing.