Movie Review: The Red Turtle

Animated film from Studio Ghibli has no dialogue

The Red Turtle
Directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit
Animated, no dialogue

Traditional animation in recent years has been associated with one main studio, which has a distinctive style. But there are other ways to tell animated stories. The Red Turtle comes from Japan's Studio Ghibli working with France's Wild Bunch. Fans of Studio Ghibli will recognize the simple but beautiful style of drawing.

The story is also a bit of a change, and is the first film from Studio Ghibli not made in Japanese. Dutch-British animator Michaël Dudok de Wit and co-screenwriter Pascale Ferran have come up with a wordless tale of survival. It may not please younger kids who are used to cartoons filled with singing and dancing objects, talking animals and clever jokes. The effect is much more subtle.

The basic plot is that an unnamed man is shipwrecked and washes up on the beach of a small island. He finds a few animal companions, including some small crabs. Life is tough, though. A few animals are seen dead on the beach, for example. It is not clear what century the story takes place in.The shipwrecked man tries to build a raft to escape, but some unseen force keeps wrecking his raft and forcing him back. As one can tell from the title, a red turtle has something to do with all of this. The rest of the plot slowly delves into fantasy and fairytale. A fantasy sequence even brings a chamber music quartet playing music by Leoš Janáček.

The film isn't so much about telling a story as creating a series of stunning images and impressions. The story itself leaves behind many unanswered questions. It is more like a visual poem that relies on feeling rather than a coherent plot.

Films with no dialogue are a bit of a rarity, as it is hard to sustain the idea for a feature length. Even in the so-called silent era there was a lot of dialogue in most films. Many dialogue-less films are visual documentaries like Koyaanisqatsi. For fiction films, it often comes off as contrived. Luc Besson, for example tried the idea in his 1983 war film The Last Battle. Other attempts include The Last Laugh, a German film from 1924, and The Thief, a 1953 film Milland.

There are points in The Red Turtle were one might expect some dialogue, but the absence doesn't hurt the film that much. It would have made the film a bit less impressive to have a handful of lines near the end, even if it would have been more realistic.

Studio Ghibli's previous films include My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Fans of those cartoons will recognize the visual style, which looks more like storybook illustrations than the perhaps overly animated efforts by Disney and Pixar. In The Red Turtle in particular a lot more is left to the imagination and interpretation of the viewer. Some people prefer this, but younger viewers may become bored.

Studio Ghibli, which was started in 1985, shut down temporarily in 2014 due to the retirement of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. The Red Turtle is the first project to use the Studio Ghibli name since that announcement. The idea for the French-Belgian-Japanese co-production went back to 2008, when Hayao Miyazaki expressed interest in working with Michaël Dudok de Wit, who had already won an Oscar and other awards for one of his short films.

It is likely that The Red Turtle will also be remembered when awards come around early next year, although Pixar and Walt Disney tend to dominate the category. 

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