The Red Turtle is the story of a nameless sailor who is shipwrecked on a remote, uninhabited island. Although the island is full of fruit to eat and fresh water to drink, the man decides to leave the island. He chops down the island’s bamboo trees and lashes them together into a raft. But when he tries to sail away from the island, he encounters an enormous red turtle which sinks the raft. Still determined to leave the island, the man makes another, larger raft. But once again the red turtle destroys his vessel. Yet the red turtle never harms the man.
That is really all I can say about the plot of the film without getting into spoiler territory. The Red Turtle is an exceedingly simple film- it has very few characters and is barely 90 minutes long. But most importantly: it has no dialogue whatsoever. The entire story is told without any more than a few grunts and some yelling in frustration or fear. It is almost unheard for anyone to make a silent film in the twenty-first century, and I applaud both the director (Michaël Dudok de Wit) and the production companies (Japan’s Studio Ghibli and the French/German Wild Bunch) for taking such a risk with the film.
And that risk pays off wildly. The Red Turtle is an enchanting film not only despite of its simplicity, but because of it. Without any spoken dialogue, all of our attention is focused on the remaining sounds and visuals of the film, all of which are fantastic. The film’s art director is Ghibli’s Takahata Isao, known for such films as Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and his influence on the art style is considerable. It looks much like Princess Kaguya, possessing a similar watercolor-like animation style on par with some of Ghibli’s greatest works. Although the film lacks dialogue, it is certainly not silent. The film has a simple and understated yet beautiful score, which is used sparingly to highlight specific emotional scenes. Much of the rest of the film has no sound save for the crashing of the waves on the beach and the wind blowing through the bamboo trees.
And although we’ve all seen survival stories before, I’ve never seen one pack the emotional punch that The Red Turtle does. Again, this is where its simplicity serves it well, as the near-complete stripping of any human voices from the film really hammers home the isolation of our unnamed protagonist, which is only enhanced by the gorgeous visuals and the stirring score. Plus, a few other things that I won’t spoil for you.
The Red Turtle is a rare gem of a film. With only a barebones story, a few characters and no words, it provides a more emotional journey than most normal films twice its length. In many ways it is cinema at its essence, with all extraneous details stripped away to leave only a core of imagery, sounds, and an elementary narrative. And it goes to show that, sometimes, simplicity is best.