The Red Turtle

Studio Ghibli’s first collaboration with Dutch Academy Award winning animator Michael Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is a playful and moving meditation on life and the passage of time. It’s an allegorical fable about human existence that’s intensely heartfelt and artfully animated, reminding us of our limited time on earth and our deep need for companionship.

A man finds himself stranded on a tropical island with only crabs and birds for company. He makes several attempts to escape the island by building a raft with the bamboo he finds in a nearby forest but he’s continually foiled by a large sea turtle.

Angry and consumed with hatred for the turtle and desperate with diminishing resources at his disposal, he makes a plan to kill the giant turtle, yet what happens in the aftermath of the confrontation between man and turtle is an unexpected  all-consuming compassion for the subject of his hatred.

This bizarre story turns into a magical tale of deep sympathy and compassion with life taking its natural course and the turtle becoming an essential part of the hero’s happiness. In many ways the story calls to mind the same themes and ideas of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964) based on Kobo Abe’s novel The Woman in the Dunes.

The film focuses closely on the physical and emotional turmoil of the castaway as he deals with his predicament; his determination to leave the island, his frustration, wonder and struggles. The absence of any dialogue contributes to a meditative philosophical mood in a place with no other humans and only the wind, the sea and nature all around to interact with.

The animation has a clean clear cinematic look with natural colors often used in European comics. It’s drawn in a minimalist yet detailed naturalistic style that harkens back to the popular Belgian cartoonist Hergé who is best known for The Adventures of Tintin.

The story’s underlying existential theme touches on the random connections that life presents us with and how our relationships and circumstances define our existence. Before we make those personal connections we are just consumed with selfish pursuits, but once we stumble into a deep love connection, it feels at first like a trap or prison, a restriction on our egocentric existence until one day we realize our life is being fulfilled beyond our expectations and we no longer seek to escape it. 

The Red Turtle steadily grows into more than the sum of its parts and is a rewarding emotional experience for those who have the patience to see it through to its satisfying conclusion.


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