The Red Turtle: The Primordial Wonders of Nature

*** ½ (out of 4)

Back in the 1700s, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau got a lot of mileage out of writing paeans to nature. In fact, in one of his most famous works, the Discourse on Inequality, he devotes thousands of words to a glowing and detailed description of humans in a primitive state of being. “To go naked, to be without habitation, and to be deprived of all the useless things we believe so necessary,” he declares at one point, “is…not such a great misfortune…nor…is it such a great obstacle to…preservation.” Conveniently, he never gets around to discussing the diseases and environmental disasters nature can easily throw on the unprepared — but reading him, you do start to question whether modern-day civilization is all it’s cracked up to be.

Throughout its short running time, Michaël Dudok de Wit’s new animated silent film The Red Turtle feels like it came straight out of one of Rousseau’s daydreams. Right from the beginning, when we open on an unnamed man struggling to stay afloat in the ocean as large waves crash down on him, we enter a realm where the only signs that some distant civilization is out there are the clothes on his back. The man soon washes up on an uninhabited island, and for a while, he devotes his efforts to trying to return to that civilization. Three times in a row, we follow him as he drags logs down to the beach, carefully assembles them into a raft, and then tries to leave — only to find his efforts continually foiled when some mysterious sea creature jolts his creation apart every time. Eventually, he gets the message: he stops trying to defy the forces of nature and learns to fall in with them instead.

And why wouldn’t he? The island Dudok de Wit gives us is simply designed — no palm trees or tropical oases to be seen here — but beautiful. Every image we see of the sky, whether night or day, is drawn with the gentle, natural elegance of a watercolor landscape; its color changes to reflect the man’s mood (a flaming red sunset when he’s angry, a dreary gray when he’s defeated), but the alterations never feel remotely staged. Meanwhile, the water at times has such a weightless feel that when the man finds himself in the ocean, his movements have the character of an effortless dance, not a taxing swim. Not everything we encounter is always this uplifting, of course — at the beginning, you’ll be on the edge of your seat when the man falls through a crevice in a cliff and has no way to get back out unless he makes a perilous swim under a large boulder. And when a storm attacks the island, such is the force of the movie’s sound effects and visuals that you find yourself almost falling backwards. On the whole, however, the world we’re presented with is a rich, powerful testament to nature as something we humans would be foolish to destroy.

This compelling and refreshing portrait of the natural world is the movie’s highlight. Unfortunately, the story behind it doesn’t quite hit the same bar. What initially seems like another take on the survivor-castaway genre soon veers into a sort of retelling of a “human creation” myth: the man finds himself sharing the island with a woman, and they eventually have a son. Yet the events that lead up to the woman’s first appearance ironically almost seem to be rewarding the man for his initial inability to appreciate nature. Moreover, when she does finally make an entrance, she falls victim to an animated version of the male gaze, appearing as a mysterious, almost exotic figure that the man stares at in transfixed awe because — gasp — she’s a woooman. I won’t give away what happens later, but suffice to say that the relationship they immediately form seems to arise only because they’re of the opposite sex. And eventually, she becomes a character whose sole desire seems to be making her husband and son feel happy enough to pursue their own. None of this is so flagrant that you’ll be left gaping in disappointment, but the movie can’t seem to adopt a Rousseauian view of nature without also taking cues from a somewhat Rousseauian view of relationships and women.

And yet, this is one of those movies whose overall setup is so breathtaking and increasingly rare to come by that it’s impossible not to love it. For one, its decision not to use a single word of dialogue works wonders; the story may be a tad retrograde, but it does have many raw and moving moments, and they simply wouldn’t hit you the way they do if words got in the way. In addition, the music, by turns soaring and melancholy, proves remarkably adept at capturing the emotional essence of all that you see. And I have to say this again: the animation is absolutely gorgeous, to the point that it completely puts the CGI of Disney and Pixar to shame. If Studio Ghibli continues producing films like this, Hayao Miyazaki won’t have to keep coming out of retirement; he can rest assured he’ll be leaving the place in good hands.


The Red Turtle (2016)

Country: France/Belgium/Japan. No dialogue.

Running Time: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG, “for some thematic elements and peril.”

Produced by: Toshio Suzuki, Vincent Maraval, Pascal Caucheteux, Grégoire Sorlat, Léon Perahia

Story by: Michaël Dudok de Wit, Pascale Ferran

Directed by: Michaël Dudok de Wit