The Red Turtle (2016)
“The Red Turtle” is this year’s best animation Oscar nominee that surprised people in a way it masterfully combined visual simplicity and metaphoric depth. The film borrows the theme of Robinson Crusoe to tell the story of a shipwrecked man who experiences both desperation, sorrow and then happiness on an isolated island. The director of this gem is Dutch Michaël Dudok de Wit who partnered with the Japanese Studio Ghibli to produce a wordless, but very meaningful animation which explores the theme of a man’s survival on an island, but also the bigger topics of a man’s place in the universe and his relationship with nature. Given the film’s visual simplicity, it is astounding how much there is to experience here for the viewer. Even if the content of this animation may be described as “thin”, the underling symbolism of the movie guarantees that the audience engages in emotive reflection.
The film opens with what looks like a shipwreck and a man left stranded on the shore of an island all by himself. As the man lies on the shore, we see a small crab coming out of the sandy ground and going up the man’s leg, awakening him. Now, from this sequence on, we get the feel for this film: it is made in the so-called Eastern animation tradition, where the focus is on nature: the fauna and flora, and a man’s interaction with it. The man in this film is portrayed as something small and insignificant in comparison to the vast and powerful environment, and this alone makes the film contemplative and thought-provoking. Often, the starry skies and the vast ocean in the movie fill the whole of the scene’s frame, and our hero’s attempts to survive in, or escape the island’s wilderness are met with unexpected challenges. Besides the danger of dying from hunger and natural disasters, our hero also faces the mysterious force hidden beneath the ocean waves.
The graphics here are simple enough, and the presentation can even be compared to the simple lines of the Tintin cartoons. However, the film is filled with so much of what may be described as “magical realism”/dual interpretations and poetic significance that few people will complain of over-simplicity. There are two ways in which you can view this animation: literal and symbolic. The island in the film is presented as benign, but soon our stranded hero meets the red turtle that becomes first his nemesis and then the source of his happiness. Here, realism is intertwined with fantasy, and the audience gets to consider such concepts as nature, water and a female form being the source of life, and the idea that if one stars to appreciate the nature the way it is, even if it sometimes distorts one’s plans, it may end up leading one to unexpected happiness. In other words, what hampered one’s actions in the beginning may provide the key to one’s survival in the end, and everything ultimately depends on one’s outlook, belief and vision. From the psychological point of view, the film is also interesting as here we have a man who slowly starts to lose his senses in the middle of nowhere, including seeing mirages and having auditory and visual hallucinations, only to end up making friends with nature, coming to terms with his desperate situation and accepting his destiny, while, at the same time, embracing the beauty of his newly-found freedom. Nothing is really said in this film, and yet everything is implied and understood, leading to a bittersweet and moving finale.
As previously reviewed “Wolf Children” (2012), “The Red Turtle” requires patience on the part of the viewer, and perhaps also open-mindedness. The film is not some kind of a fast-paced entertainment: most of the time, its plot is uneventful and its pace may appear slow. However, the story of one man’s survival on a tropical island is still fascinating, especially since there is a certain element of romanticism in it. Besides, this beautiful film evokes personal reflections and deep philosophical interpretations, and because of its force to suggest so much, it has the power to stay with you long after the credits roll. 9/10