Almost by accident I saw The Red Turtle last Friday. I’d initially gone to the Museum of Modern Art to see Modesty Blaise (1966), a spy spoof directed by Joseph Losey, starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, and Dirk Bogarde. I’d seen it once when it was first released, but remembered virtually nothing about it (though I had the idea that its approach was similar to the 1960s U.K. television series The Avengers, which I’d liked a lot). About thirty-five minutes after Modesty Blaise started, the screen went black with a pop. A few minutes later there was an announcement that there would be a delay of five to ten minutes. I rarely walk out of films, but this one wasn’t working for me at all, and this was all the excuse I needed.
Walking home, disgruntled because my movie plans had been disrupted, I stopped at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Broadway in the 60s to see what was playing. The Red Turtle was starting in ten minutes, so I went in. I was aware of the title and had seen the poster, but other than that, I knew nothing about it, except that the Japanese animation production company Studio Ghibli was involved. I’d seen Studio Ghibli films made by the great Hayao Miyazaki, and wondered if The Red Turtle would be anything like those. Then I saw on the poster that it was directed by someone named Michaël Dudok de Wit. Obviously not a Japanese name, so I didn’t know what to expect.
Not knowing what to expect isn’t a bad way to see a film, especially when it’s as wonderful at this one is. Without expectations or preconceptions, everything you see is a discovery. With that in mind, I’m going to say very little about what happens, except that it’s a story of a man castaway on a deserted island. We know nothing about him or even when this takes place. It’s timeless. There is no dialogue (though there is an evocative music score). Eventually he isn’t alone. I’ve probably said too much already.
The look of The Red Turtle runs counter to the currently popular Pixar-style computer-generated 3D animation. Michaël Dudok de Wit is a Dutch animator and illustrator based in London. He loves 2D animation. The Red Turtle looks like it was done in watercolors, with very simple, spare images. “I like films that are monochromatic,” Dudok de Wit says in an article in The New York Times. “It gives a purity and a simplicity to the image that I find very attractive.” The Times piece goes on to say “While he knew the feature would need dynamic landscapes and more color than his shorts had, he still wanted to keep the number of colors to a minimum. He asked his background artist to use one or two main colors and create variations on them in a scene. ‘It’s like in real life when there are days when all the colors are gray because the sky is cloudy,’ Mr. Dudok de Wit said. ‘That’s beautiful.'”
Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki had seen Dudok de Wit’s Academy Award-winning short, Father and Daughter (2000), and was interested in working with him on Ghibli’s first international co-production. Dudok de Wit explains how he approached making The Red Turtle in an interview which can be accessed here.
There’s a sense of wonder in seeing this film that’s what I imagine it’s like having a parent read a fairy tale to you when you’re a child. The Red Turtle is a fable that has a deep respect for nature and the cycle of life and death.
Now you know more about The Red Turtle than I did before I saw it. But not too much, I hope. The film is currently playing in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. – Ted Hicks
Here is Michaël Dudok de Wit’s Father and Daughter, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2001.