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The Red Turtle

Co-produced by Studio Ghibli, this wordless animation is absolutely enchanting.
By Sarah Ward
September 23, 2016
By Sarah Ward
September 23, 2016

UPDATE, September 17, 2020: The Red Turtle is available to stream via SBS On Demand, Google Play and YouTube Movies.


Amidst the swirling chaos of streaming waves and thunderous seas, a lone man struggles to survive. Clinging to the remnants of his wrecked vessel, he's almost enveloped by the sound, fury and force of the water, his status as a mere speck in the ocean never in doubt. When he washes up on a deserted island, he finds himself similarly dwarfed by his surroundings. Sand stretches as far as the eye can see, as the taunting tide laps at the coastline. Cavernous nooks and crannies appear inviting, yet also threaten to swallow him whole. The foliage bears fruit, but little comfort.

Welcome to the detailed natural realm conjured up by Dutch-British illustrator-turned-animator Michael Dudok de Wit in his feature filmmaking debut, The Red Turtle. That his Cannes Un Certain Regard special jury prize-winning effort is a co-production with beloved Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli — their first-ever such collaboration, in fact — gives an indication of the beauty and intricacy on offer. However, as magical as the movie's hand-drawn sights appear, this is a tale designed to evoke a different kind of wonder: not for an adventurous, fantastical journey, but for the complicated splendour that springs from man's relationship with the world around him.

So it is that the unnamed figure explores the space that has become his new home, before swiftly turning his attention to fashioning a raft to escape back to civilisation. Alas, each attempt is stymied, particularly when an enormous red turtle starts to interfere. It's this new companion that reveals another side of our hero's predicament, and prompts the film's elegant probing of the nature of human existence — though the specifics are best discovered by watching.

Part of The Red Turtle's potency comes from its simplicity, although it is far from a simple film. Instead, it's a feature that embraces conflict and contrast, and finds vast depth in defying expectations. It's largely dialogue-free, yet rages with noise and swells with the sounds of composer Laurent Perez Del Mar's gentle score.  Though focused on one man's plight, its eye-catching imagery hones in on the texture of every scurrying crab, splash of water and blade of grass around him — and never fails to stress its protagonist's place in the world. While brief at 80 minutes, it fills every second and frame with emotion.

Similar stranded situations have graced cinema screens before. Tom Hanks conversed with a volleyball in Castaway, while Paul Dano bonded with the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man earlier this year. With that in mind, The Red Turtle proves enchanting not because it's novel, but because it's rich, dense, and delicately devastating in its examination of the parts of life that truly matter. Take a chance, and let this beautiful film sweep you away.

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