We’re born; life washes us up on various shores; we build our sand castles and navigate the years; we die. From this four-part miniseries we call human existence, the Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit has created “The Red Turtle,” a product of de Wit’s collaboration with Studio Ghibli, Japan’s house of plaintive animation mastery.
There are no words spoken in this story, and none are needed. A man, apparently shipwrecked and battered by ocean waves, wakes up on the sand of a tropical island. The island is uninhabited by homo sapiens, but there’s life everywhere: tiny turtles, skittering crabs, various birds crisscrossing high overhead.
The man pulls bamboo logs out of the nearby forest and attempts to make a vessel to take him home again. After two attempts, and various, looming reminders of his odds of ever leaving this place, his frustration peaks. Then the low-keyed miracle of “The Red Turtle” appears. She is a raven-haired woman housed in the cracked shell of an enormous sea turtle. Is the man dreaming, just as he dreams of string quartets playing on the beach?
Using this mermaidlike fluke of newly fashioned mythology, filmmaker de Wit’s directorial feature debut hasn’t imagined anything revolutionary or especially inventive. Yet the grace, elegance, carefully muted color palette and gradual acknowledgment of life’s milestones lift “The Red Turtle” far above the average so-called “family-friendly” animation. Nothing’s rushed here, and nothing was rushed in its making. The filmmaker started writing in 2007, and spent time on one of the Seychelles islands near Madagascar for research. The credit for script and design goes to de Wit, with Jean-Christophe Lie serving as the film’s chief animator.
Watching “The Red Turtle,” one of this year’s five animated features nominated for an Academy Award, is like falling into an 80-minute wormhole of spare artistry. It exists far from the world as we know it, and most of our kids know it, the one dominated by shrill, lippy cynicism packaged as entertainment. There is, I suppose, an element (some would say a heavy dose) of the medicinal in the style and mood here. As the castaway grows older, and enters an improbable phase of domestic life, the life lessons are tapped into place. But de Wit isn’t a finger-wagger or a moralist. He’s simply stating, in visual terms, that we must persist, and leave ourselves open to fantastical developments.
In his short film “Father and Daughter,” de Wit followed a young girl through the decades, awaiting, doggedly, her father’s return from the sea. Perhaps “The Red Turtle” is about that father, and what happened to him.
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