"The Red Turtle" is a visually stunning poetic fable, but there's more on its mind than simply beauty.
The first full-length work by Oscar-winning Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit and a prize-winner at Cannes, this is an immersive, meditative animated feature that is concerned with the rhythms of the natural world and the mysteries and wonders of ordinary life.
With a simple, uncluttered visual look that manages to be realistic as well as gorgeous, "The Red Turtle's" story of a nameless man shipwrecked on an uninhabited island has no lack of dramatic adventures and threatening events.
But, as befits a dialogueless work that mixes Laurent Perez del Mar's fluid score with the ambient sounds of the physical world, "The Red Turtle" intends to enlarge our spirit as well as dazzle us, and in this it succeeds.
Dudok De Wit, who won the best animated short Oscar in 2000 for the lovely and moving "Father and Daughter," was in fact perfectly content to avoid features altogether until he received an offer he couldn't refuse, an email so unexpected he initially wondered if it was a prank.
As he related in an interview at Cannes, the animator got an out-of-the-blue message from Studio Ghibli co-founder and legendary Japanese director Isao Takahata ("The Tale of Princess Kaguya," "Grave of the Fireflies") offering him the chance to be the first non-Japanese animator to make a film for the revered studio. "His participation," Dudok de Wit said simply, "meant I must make a feature."
Someone who prefers to work slowly with a small team, Dudok de Wit spent nine years on "The Red Turtle," at one point bringing in top French screenwriter Pascale Ferran (who shares adaptation credit with the director) to fine tune the story.
Though "The Red Turtle" has strong parable elements, dealing finally with the very nature of existence, Dudok de Wit has taken care to make the film's presentation as vividly real as it is symbolic.
The director even went so far as to live on one of the smaller Seychelles islands, taking literally thousands of photos that proved invaluable to the team of animators working on "Red Turtle's" look and feel.
The film opens with an unnamed man being tossed and turned on a stormy sea, the lone survivor, presumably, of an unseen shipwreck. He washes ashore, Robinson Crusoe-style, on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere.
Happy to be alive, the man gradually explores his refuge, climbing its highest point, swimming in its coastal pools, discovering plentiful food and water but realizing, except for a Greek chorus of curious sand crabs, that he is completely alone.
Determined to leave the island and rejoin the world's humanity, the man painstakingly builds a raft, slowly joining bamboo stalk to bamboo stalk and even fashioning a serviceable sail.
But he doesn't account for an enormous ocean-going red turtle, which gives the man a baleful reptilian look and definitely has ideas of its own, which is about all anyone should know plot-wise about how this singular endeavor plays out.
What should be known is that the beauty of "The Red Turtle's" images holds us and pulls us in. Though that turtle itself was so huge it had to be computer animated, everything else was done by hand using Cintiq, a digital pen that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor.
The island's lush forests and expansive open spaces, the ocean's superb turquoise immensity, they're all depicted with the kind of visual grace that makes it clear why Studio Ghibli knew Dudok de Wit's work would be a good fit.
It is the gift of "The Red Turtle" to simply unfold as it's experienced by its nameless protagonist. It is less the adventure of a lifetime than the adventure of life, with all the wonder that implies.
MPAA rating: PG for some thematic elements and peril.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Playing Landmark's Nuart, West Los Angeles.
Critic's Choice. A prize-winner at Cannes, this immersive, meditative, stunningly beautiful animated feature that is concerned with the rhythms of the natural world and the mysteries and wonders of ordinary life. — Kenneth Turan