The Academy Award-nominated “The Red Turtle,” from Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, is a sweet, surreal reverie of a film. The first non-Japanese feature to emerge from Studio Ghibli – home of such masters as Hayao Miyazaki and his acolytes – this quiet meditation on humans’ relationship with nature hews to Ghibli’s core values of exquisitely rendered visual images combined with gently ruminative sensibilities.
From its dramatic opening sequence, “The Red Turtle” presents viewers with an alternately frightening and inviting universe, where a nameless man is seen tumbling through storm-tossed waves, later washing ashore on a deserted island. Foraging for fresh water and food, he establishes an arms-length respect for the island’s fauna, which include troops of skittering crabs and the occasional sunning sea lion. When he encounters a giant red turtle, however, he embarks on an altogether surprising relationship that tests the boundaries of interspecies understanding, and the notion of anthropomorphism itself.
De Wit, who was commissioned by Ghibli to make “The Red Turtle” after he won an Oscar for his animated 2000 short “Father and Daughter,” takes his time to unspool this story, which is all the more intriguing for being related completely without dialogue. With only waves and wind, insect noises and Laurent Perez Del Mar’s pretty but sometimes insistent score to guide them, spectators are plunged into the bygone glories of silent cinema, their senses awakened anew by the pleasure of watching humans and animals moving through space - in this case, an island that becomes a character in itself, with its buff-colored expanses of sand, its lush bamboo forests, its blue-green coastline and tidal pools and the mists and morning hazes that envelop it like diaphanous blankets.
Film fans will detect nods to “The Black Stallion” and “Cast Away” during film’s initial moments, as well as to such cinematic fables as “The Secret of Roan Inish” later on, when the film’s stranded hero finds an unlikely antidote to his loneliness and isolation in the form of a dreamlike, shape-shifting presence.
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The plot of “The Red Turtle” can be read two ways, either as an Edenic allegory of ecological balance and rebirth, or an irritating answer to the indie-film trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in the form of a luxuriantly tressed Mystical Object of Desire. If de Wit’s idea of story is sometimes gratingly simplistic and sentimental, there’s no denying its primal classicism, or the seductive pull of sound and image at their most pure and unfussy.
A study in silence, solitude and stark beauty, “The Red Turtle” is a return to first principles, offering respite from an all-too-cluttered and cacophonous world.
The Red Turtle
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Length: 80 minutes
Rating: PG (some disturbing thematic elements and peril)
Morrisville: Park Place. Chapel Hill: Silverspot.