The Red Turtle is not a typical animated film, yet it’s the simplest choice that makes it stand out. You might think it’s the fact that The Red Turtle begins with a Studio Ghibli logo, despite looking more like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince than Spirited Away or The Wind Rises. It may seem strange that this typically Japanese studio made the choice to outsource their first director, the Dutch Oscar winner Michael Dudok de Wit, for his first film. Or maybe it’s that The Red Turtle tells its entire story without dialogue, using its gorgeous visuals instead. But the real standout and surprise of The Red Turtle is where Dudok De Wit decides to place his camera, presenting a view of the world he is presenting from an omnipresent, godlike view, just close enough to see the story, but just far enough for our characters to not realize we are there.
The Red Turtle presents a man with no background and no name, as he washed up on a deserted island. The man surveys his surroundings, then begins to build a raft back to civilization. The man tries over and over, but each time, his raft is destroyed by the eponymous red turtle, keeping him on the island. After his third attempt washes him ashore, the man takes out his aggressions on the turtle, beating the turtle and leaving it for dead. What comes next presents The Red Turtle more in the realm of fable, one that delicately discusses the intricacies of life, without ever saying a word.
But it’s the viewpoint that Dudok De Wit gives his audience that truly hits his message home. The Red Turtle questions the impression we make on the world, even if it doesn’t feel like we make any. Despite being completely alone and having no affect on the world around him, the unnamed man’s actions have consequences that resonate for years to come. By almost always placing our viewpoint slightly ahead of our character—almost like The Sims—we watch his actions from a distance where we are helpless to do anything but watch. Thanks to Dudok De Wit, he has made the audience God in this shipwrecked man’s life, a bystander that can only hope for the best.
It’s the rare fantasy aspects of The Red Turtle that are most reminiscent of Ghibli’s previous work, and also might be what keeps most audiences at arm’s length. Most of The Red Turtle is based around survival, yet it’s Dudok De Wit’s work with myth, fable, and unexpected symbolism, especially with the film’s largest twist, that might confuse more than compel.
But what The Red Turtle might lack in plot or forward momentum, it makes up for in some of the most awe-inspiring visuals in recent animated history. There’s an elegance to The Red Turtle’s animation style, hand drawn to often look as naturalistic as possible. The Red Turtle is beginning to end breathtaking, in everything from a massive hurricane to simply watching baby turtles make their way back to the ocean. Dudok De Wit impresses with every frame, never rushing his story, but allowing the audience to breathe in every visual flourish.
With The Red Turtle, Dudok De Wit has created an animated film unlike any other, a sumptuous visual palette with a simplistic yet captivating story. With no dialogue and a gift for basic storytelling, Dudok De Wit becomes one of the most exciting minds in animation.