Greg Llamas is a journalism senior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
Lately, it seems that animation studios like Pixar and Disney have been drawn to the intricacy of water-filled environments. “Finding Dory” and “Moana” are prime examples of the power computer animation has to create life-like and sensational depictions of water and characters interacting with it. It’s interesting that the famed Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli also tried its hand at the recent water obsession, co-producing “The Red Turtle” with European distribution company Wild Bunch.
“The Red Turtle” is the feature-length debut of Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. Unlike the powerful animation used to produce “Finding Dory” and “Moana,” “The Red Turtle” was produced on a much lower budget and is mostly hand-drawn. Combined with the film absolutely lacking in dialogue, it might seem that “The Red Turtle” is shallow and pretentious, trying too hard to be artsy. Yet this inherent minimalism, for the most part, makes the film’s atmosphere more palpable than powerhouse animation from big studios.
When an unnamed man washes ashore on a deserted tropical island, he attempts to escape several times by building rafts. However, each time he tries to set sail, a large red turtle breaks apart his raft, keeping him bound to the island. After taking out his frustration on the turtle, a woman appears on the island under mysterious circumstances. Faced with a decision of whether or not to abandon her, the man decides to create some semblance of a domestic life and the two face the dangers of the island together.
From start to finish, the characters of “The Red Turtle” are embroiled in a struggle with nature. After the man is washed ashore during a powerful storm in which he almost drowns, the island is portrayed as hostile. The first minutes of the film establish that in this struggle, nature is out to get the man. From being trapped under rocks to having his rafts destroyed by the red turtle, nature is never kind to him.
Another element the man struggles with is his mental state when dealing with the conflict alone. He routinely hallucinates a string quartet playing on the beach and his dreams of flying away from the island show, without any words, his crippling loneliness. The direction of “The Red Turtle” also displays this loneliness. Before the woman appears, the film showed long shots of the island surrounded by a vast wasteland of water, giving a sense of isolation. Without saying a word, “The Red Turtle” says a
This ruthless and isolating portrayal of nature progresses into something different after the woman appears. As the man and woman bond, the island becomes their home. Instead of being portrayed as a wasteland of danger and loneliness, the couple becomes an integral part of life on the island. Joined by families of crabs and birds, the island encompasses a true feeling of home. Eventually, the couple even raises a son, proving the man’s relationship with the island and nature changed into something harmonious.
Even though there’s not a single line of dialogue during “The Red Turtle,” with the exception of some grunts and angry yells, there’s still enough expression from the characters and how they act to get a sense of what they’re feeling or what they want to say. This is especially apparent at the beginning of the film. With no words, we are able to see the man’s desperation to escape from the island. Through fast-paced and reckless movements that the simple animation style captures well, and the man’s hallucinations, we are well aware of the man’s motivations and desires without him having to say a single word. This carries through the rest of the film. We are privy to when the characters are happy, angry or sad. It’s a prime example of showing instead of telling.
This dialogue limitation that “The Red Turtle” deals with isn’t the only issue in the film. The animation style is very simple. The characters’ faces are essentially what would be expected from a drawing from a child: black dots for the eyes and a line for the mouth. However, this doesn’t mean the animation is unimpressive. Even with these simplistic features, we’re able to see how the characters feel. Just from looking at the man’s face when he’s managing his ill-fated attempts at escaping, we can see his hopes and frustrations etched onto a simplistic palette. This animation style makes “The Red Turtle” able to communicate emotions in a way those big budget animation studios can’t, no matter how intricate and astounding their characters may be.
The no-dialogue limitation at times gives “The Red Turtle” more depth. Sometimes, words aren’t necessary to get the meaning of a scene across. Having no lines during some scenes enhance the atmosphere of the island, something that would be lost if the characters were constantly talking. Yet there are times in the film where a bit of dialogue would make the scene better.
For example, whenever a character is on their own, the lack of dialogue makes the scene more immersive. However, when the family is all together and they don’t talk with each other (sometimes awkwardly staring at each other), it doesn’t feel real. There are some things that make more sense when communicated through dialogue and the interactions between characters are sometimes strained throughout the film because of this absence.
It’s nearly impossible to surpass the legacies of memorable Studio Ghibli films such as “Spirited Away” or “Princess Mononoke.” And while “The Red Turtle” doesn’t approach its legendary predecessors, it’s a great reminder that sometimes simplicity is better than complexity.