It’s no wonder that animated films have come to symbolize the commercial excesses of 21st-century Hollywood. Budgets for animated blockbusters routinely exceed $200 million and take years and an army of animators to produce, even with the benefit of today’s highly specialized digital tools. Such large and risky investments often result in overstuffed films designed primarily to sell as much tie-in merchandise as possible.
Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle offers a much-needed antidote to that wearying trend. Co-produced by Japanese anime specialists Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away) and a variety of European production houses, The Red Turtle opts for understated elegance over crass commercialism. Almost entirely hand-drawn — with quirks and small imperfections left intact — it uses the story of a man shipwrecked on a desert island to drive a visually seductive, Zen-like film that examines the cycles of life and our relationship to the natural world.
The 80-minute, Academy Award-nominated (Best Animated Feature) The Red Turtle includes not a word of spoken dialogue. Taking its place are the behavior and body language of the film’s characters and the varied sounds of nature, all of which keep viewers engaged and tell a simple-yet-powerful story.
As The Red Turtle begins, turbulent seas toss an unnamed man who apparently has lost his ship to the storm. He washes ashore on a remote island with enough food and fresh water to support physical survival, but his solitude weighs heavily over time. The story gradually transforms into a fable after the man encounters a red sea turtle while trying to escape the island.
Dudok de Wit is known mainly for two short, minimalist animated films, the Oscar-nominated The Monk and the Fish and Oscar-winning Father and Daughter. These works are widely admired by anime pioneers including Studio Ghibli’s Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, who suggested Dudok de Wit make his first foray into feature-length work with what became The Red Turtle.
You don’t have to be an expert in Japanese culture to recognize a spiritual connection between that country’s worldview and Dudok de Wit’s work. (The two groundbreaking shorts are available for free viewing on YouTube.) Simplicity and humility are primary attributes and make working without dialogue not only possible, but advisable — especially in The Red Turtle, where the underlying theme is a reverence for nature that needs no direct explanation.
Dudok de Wit refuses to take the easy route by allowing the film’s score (by French composer Laurent Perez del Mar) to telegraph its emotional peaks and valleys. The Red Turtle imparts depth of feeling mainly through the subtle sounds and gestures of its human characters. It’s remarkable how expressive non-verbal communication can be in a setting like this — from a shy laugh to a sharp breath of fear. The viewer’s undivided attention is required here, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
If nothing else, The Red Turtle proves that animated films don’t have to be blockbusters to earn major theatrical distribution — at least with a major assist from the Academy Awards. Oscar season means that a number of adventurous nominees — especially in the Foreign Language Film and Documentary Feature categories — will grace local theaters in the weeks ahead. Enjoy them on the big screen while you can.
The Red Turtle begins an exclusive run today, Feb. 24, at the The Broad Theater. More info here.