Shipwrecked and bewildered, a lone man washes up on an island that has lush, forest vegetation, fresh water, fruit, and everything a person needs to survive, except human company. His attempts to escape his isolation by raft are repeatedly scuppered by a mysterious, and gorgeous sea creature, with which he forms a lasting, and surprising relationship.
The Red Turtle, an animated feature film that was widely admired at Cannes, plays the London Film Festival next month. You may have heard of if because it represents a first in the world of animation – a Studio Ghibli co-production, being a collaboration between the well-known Japanese outfit and Dutchman Michaël Dudok de Wit. It is also that beast rarer than a giant red sea turtle: a new, and very accomplished feature-length film without dialogue.
The silence, washed over with a sophisticated sound mix of animal noises and ferocious waves, is supplemented by a gorgeous, rousing score that helps to elevate the castaway’s solitary struggles to edge-of-the-seat, blockbuster events. And it is in the first third that the film is its most successful, as the hero adjusts to his surroundings, carves himself an awkward niche in the island ecosystem, and valiantly attempts to sail away into the sunset and towards civilisation. One early sequence, in which he slips through a crevice and must use all his strength and courage to swim to safety, cranks the tension to its utmost. In these first scenes, we are privileged to share his fears and frustration, his dreams and his sickness, so that each time he tries to make a break for it, alone on his wobbly raft, the interference of the red turtle is a cold shock. This portion of the film is closest to a horror movie, the most obvious analogue being Jaws, with a silent, invisible terror lurking beneath the waves. Sometimes he screams, but of course there is no one to hear him. It is a masterful feat of sustained silent film narrative, engrossing and terrifying.
The Red Turtle is a beautiful film, with lightly mottled skies and vibrant sunrises seeming almost to mock the troubled hero. It’s a slightly less polished look than the usual Ghibli fare, with more hand-drawing, and bold, simple lines. The film makes deft use of this clash of textures and styles – glassy waves contrasting against an ink-dappled sky in one dream sequence, for example. And the supernatural element combines with this laid-back design to create spaces that become so blank they are abstract, hovering between the sunsoaked day and the dreams that come at night
While the wide open spaces threaten the hero, their elegance is astonishingly seductive. His prison looks like a paradise, and he shares it with some diverting fellows. There are personable fish (destined for the spear, poor loves) and birds, highly attuned to the changes of air and tide, and coming disaster. Most notable of all is a clatter of cheeky, companionable crabs – tiny, adorable scene stealers.
There is a big twist in The Red Turtle, one that sneaks that element of enchantment into the tale, and I don’t want to reveal it here. It’s a stunning reveal, but it represents a development that topples the film slightly. Unfortunately, it introduces some forgivable logistical gaps and less welcome lapses in psychological realism, even as it opens up the story to a wider circle of life. Arguably, the character one would most like to explore remains a frustrating absence. More worryingly, for a spell The Red Turtle risks cutesiness, a disappointment after its elemental beginnings.
But the film remains, for the most part breathtakingly moving, as it wades into deep emotional waters. Like all survival narratives, it asks questions about humanity’s place in the food chain, about our impact on the environment, as well as our vulnerability to primitive forces. The Red Turtle also tells a story of evolutionary importance, nudging us closer to our water-dwelling ancestors and pondering how far we have come since we too washed up on a hostile shore.
The Red Turtle screens as part of the London Film Festival on 5 and 6 October. Buy tickets here.