The new French, Belgian, and Japanese film The Red Turtle may not be anime in the technical sense, but the Studio Ghibli-produced animated movie is still an experience right at home with the studio’s world-famous Japan-made titles.
The Red Turtle opens with a raging storm where a lone shipwrecked sailor struggles to keep his head above water as he clings to various debris from his downed vessel. He awakens alone on a small, bamboo-covered island. With crabs his only companions, he attempts to escape the island, only to have his rafts destroyed by a mysterious red turtle.
This first section of the film is a study in loneliness and frustration. Trapped on the island, even simple exploration is life-threatening. He must find food and drinkable water all while building stronger and stronger rafts.
Yet, though the crabs are always nearby–and seem oddly capricious–they aren’t anything like real company. The loneliness plagues him. His dreams are filled with escape and, soon, they bleed into reality as he faces sickness and malnutrition. In the end, the only thing close to another person is his enemy, the Red Turtle–as it seems to have an intelligence beyond that of any animal.
While the first act is a down-to-earth survival story, the film becomes a fairy tale in the second act as the surreal nature of the plot kicks into high gear. Of course, whether this is real or hallucination is left up to the viewer.
The most notable aspect of the film is that there is a grand total of one single word spoken in the entire film–“hey,” used sixteen times in all. And they get the most out of their single word, let me assure you. It is used in hope, in sorrow, and in terror.
Without dialogue, the actions of the sailor must drive the story–and they do, to great effect. Every emotion is plain on his face. From rage and joy to hopelessness and regret, what he is thinking is always plain to see. Likewise, the layout of the island becomes familiar as the film goes on, granting each location a history and sense of purpose. Thus, simply by seeing the sailor’s location, it’s easy to tell what exactly is going on in the story.
But while conversation may be non-existent, that’s not to say that the rest of the film is silent, however. The sailor grunts and groans, wordlessly shouts, and cries in pain and frustration. And the sounds of nature constantly fill the small island with the ambient sound of life.
Visually, the art design is stunning–especially in the more surreal portions of the film. The colors on the island are vibrant, except at night. Instead of painting a realistic-looking nighttime of blacks and blues, the world at night is shown in monochrome. The moonlight appears a bright white while the shadows turn into the darkest of blacks and greys. It’s an artistic touch that adds an extra layer of beauty to the film.
The character design is likewise interesting. Reminiscent of classic Belgian comic The Adventures of Tintin, the sailor has black dot eyes and lanky proportions. The Red Turtle, on the other hand, is rendered with incredibly detailed 3D animation–though you’d be hard-pressed to tell this most of the time. The turtle’s movements are stunningly realistic, making it seem like a living creature even as it acts unlike any normal turtle.
In the end, The Red Turtle is a beautiful-looking tale of survival and acceptance, proof that it’s possible to find happiness even in the most trying of locations. It’s a modern day fairy tale and one that shows the power of the old writers’ mantra: “Show, don’t tell.”
The Red Turtle was released in Japanese theaters on September 17, 2016. It will be released in the United States on January 20, 2017.