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Castaway meets an aquatic Adam and Eve story in The Red Turtle, a product of Japan’s Studio Ghibli that’s up for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The hand-drawn film, the first full-length work from Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit, was solicited by the production company after his 2000 short, Father and Daughter, impressed the studio’s brass. With the company already known for critically lauded animated films such as 2001’s Spirited Away and 1997’s Princess Mononoke, The Red Turtle is yet another affirmation that the studio has a good eye.
The film—which has no dialogue except for the occasional “Hey!”—opens with a man bobbing in stormy waves and rain that darkens the scene so murkily it’s difficult to tell sea from sky. Clinging to a piece of driftwood, he eventually makes his way to a tropical shore and passes out. You’ll wince when a crab crawls up his ragged pant leg; soon, however, the beach’s tiny crustaceans and other skittish creatures become a welcome source of charm.
Fueled by coconuts, the man starts to explore the area after he rests. There are harrowing moments, such as when he tries to wriggle through narrow underwater caverns, and false signs of hope when the inevitable mirages and dreams taunt him with means of rescue. He uses the bamboo that surrounds him to forge a raft—once, twice, three times. All immediately wreck. Though there’s something to blame on his third attempt: A large red turtle banged against the raft until it fell apart. So when the man later sees the turtle coming ashore, he flips it on his back and starts stomping on it. He doesn’t feel bad until long after you do, but guilt does overtake him, and he tries to revive the turtle, now dead.
At this point, the film veers into the fantastical—he can’t eke life out of the tortoise again, but eventually a woman hatches out of its shell. And she’s a keeper! Hair down to her waist, a cute face, also doesn’t speak. The island turns from prison to paradise, and they start a family. There’s still disaster waiting, but they face it together.
Because there’s no obvious interpretation to Dudok de Wit’s story, the possibilities are endless. Is it about unrelenting hope? The reward of righting your wrongs? Destiny, albeit effected in a really weird way? The film follows the man, woman, and son as they battle natural disasters and experience Life’s Big Moments, including when the boy becomes an adult and must forge his own way. (Spoiler alert: Turtles accompany him.)
The Red Turtle’s animation is simple and often serene, with the blues of water and sky or the green of a lush forest offering lovely views. The lack of dialogue is a double-edged attribute: It’s relaxing to watch a plot play out minus the usual chatter, but you wouldn’t mind knowing, for example, what the man and turtle-lady said to each other on their unexpected first date.
Viewers who are able to allow themselves to flow with the story’s fantastical elements will, obviously, reap the most enjoyment of this modest tale. If you prefer your allegories to be more easily read, however, you may not fully submit to the film’s lure. Either way, you’ll recognize that despite the surrealism, the road that this unorthodox family follows is largely universal.
The Red Turtle opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center.