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The Red Turtle: A minimalist masterpiece

In this wordless animation film, survival on an island becomes a fantasy

‘The Red Turtle’ seems to equate the lover with nature itself.
‘The Red Turtle’ seems to equate the lover with nature itself.

The Red Turtle, a Studio Ghibli co-production from 2016, has a simple premise and a magical conceit at its heart. But it has the mystery of a Rumi poem. A man is stranded on a desert island, where he encounters a giant red sea turtle which transforms into a woman. Earlier, we see this man trying to sail away with the help of rafts and his attempts sabotaged every single time, almost deliberately, by the same turtle. Is the woman trapped in the body of the gentle marine creature? Is it her way of inviting man to a fulfilling life in paradise? If Rumi’s poems speak about the idea of God as the lover, The Red Turtle seems to equate the lover with nature itself. Or, is it a fever dream, a fantasy necessary to survive on the island?

Michaël Dudok de Wit’s film is a fable that doesn’t have easy moral lessons. And such literal readings of The Red Turtle (which you won’t find on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but with a little more effort, in other places) are futile, for it is the kind of film which is to be experienced.

De Wit uses an animation style which is at once digitally rendered and handcrafted, richly detailed and minimalist. The Dutch animator, whose short film Father And Daughter (2000) won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, strips storytelling to its basic elements: a soundscape without words and gorgeous use of light and shadow. Mandatory components of the desert island genre aren’t dwelt upon much—for instance, the survival strategies of learning to hunt, making fire, building shelter from rain and heat, protecting oneself from wild animals. Instead, it enters a dreamier realm, examining man’s profound relationship with nature.

We are never sure which time period The Red Turtle is set in because we don’t need to be. It could be the 17th century—it will be as believable in 2050. For the story of the island bringing man down to his bare essentials is as old as stories themselves.

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