AFI European Union Film Showcase Review: ‘The Red Turtle’

A collaboration between acclaimed Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit and beloved Japanese animation firm Studio Ghibli, “The Red Turtle” beautifully merges European and Asian graphic traditions, its crisply detailed yet distinctly cartoony style suggesting a happy medium between Hergé and Hokusai. Like those artists, Dudok de Wit excels at compositions that carefully integrate simply drawn human figures into grand, imposing landscapes, which are at times richly textured—a dense thicket of bamboo, for example—and at other points strikingly minimalistic, such as vast expanses of sand, sea, and sky.

Just as it is visually structured around the dynamic between humanity and nature, the film’s narrative, which is told completely without dialogue, is also balanced between these two poles. The story has the simplicity and strangeness of a folk tale: A man is stranded on a desert island. He makes several attempts to escape by raft, but his craft is always destroyed by some unseen force. The source of the destruction eventually reveals itself to be a large red sea turtle, which washes up on the shore along with the man. In anger, he flips the turtle onto its back. The creature struggles and struggles to flip itself over until eventually it cracks open, revealing a fully grown adult woman with whom the man begins to fall in love.

I won’t spoil where things go from there, but suffice it to say that the film takes strange turns that seem perfectly natural in context. There is a magical-realist quality to the action that is bolstered by Dudok de Wit’s clear and purposeful animation. In its character movements and environments the film is largely bound by the physical laws of the real world, which grounds the fantastical flights its narrative takes. Dudok de Wit also skillfully blends dream and reality, at times muddying the two to such a degree that we’re not quite sure if what we’re watching is “real” or not.

Known for his short films, including the Oscar-winning “Father and Daughter,” Dudok de Wit had only animated about 21 minutes (excluding his commercial work) before taking on this project. Even at a lean 80 minutes, the film is an epic by Dudok de Wit’s standards, effectively quadrupling his professional output. The film is simpler and more plain-spoken than Ghibli’s usual output and worlds away from the giddy chaos of mainstream American animation, yet, with its precise comic timing and steady narrative pace, it remains accessible to a wide audience.

More than anything, it is a showcase for the Dudok de Wit’s subtle yet arresting talents, his beautifully balanced compositions and uniquely muted sense of wonder. Ultimately, the film’s greatness lies in its details: delicate shifts in light and shadow, the texture of leaves and sand, the scuttling motion of crabs, and the uncanny expression on a turtle’s face as it shuffles out to sea.

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