You don’t need words to create poetry. Without spoken dialogue, the Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle,” a richly imagined French-Belgian animated drama created with the skillful assistance of Japan’s virtuoso anime enterprise Studio Ghibli, tells an emotionally deep, thematically rich story.
Kids and families are all but guaranteed to return home from the theater profoundly touched. And even moody souls whose hearts are three sizes too small must confess that animated films this spellbindingly beautiful are nearly impossible to find.
This metaphor for life’s promises and disappointments begins by following a man-vs.-nature adventure. As in “Robinson Crusoe” or “Cast Away,” a man is delivered onto the shore of an unpopulated minor island, battered nearly to death by fearsome waves before rolling unconscious on the sand.
In its first moments, the film earns our trust for its connection, however slender, to reality. As the man is tossed around like a rag doll in the water, the imagery is as precise and vivid as any documentary cameraman could hope to capture. His struggles are the authentic thrashing of a man whose nails can’t claw onto safety. The terror of his expression is completely appropriate and, I felt, contagious.
It must be a miracle that plants him on a tropical beach, the first of several wonders the film delivers to him – and us – without editorial comment. The footage falls into steady rhythms as the man explores a lush bamboo forest and climbs high hillsides to look for help. He is the sole human inhabitant of the domain, although there’s a bit of company, and occasional nourishment, from sea lions, birds, turtles and platoons of small crabs.
Most look rather small from the man’s perspective, just as he often appears to us. The film frequently shows him moving in the distance or through a god’s-eye view from far above. Racked by bad dreams, he resourcefully makes attempts to return to his lost home. They never work, and his humility grows.
In time he reconciles himself to living in this beautiful, challenging world. He must fend for himself, finding a balance between the things he fears – dislocation, separation, danger – and life’s simple pleasures.
I will not detail his subsequent fortunes, because any road map of the sweet and sad journey ahead would diminish its marvels. I will note that just as Adam did not remain alone in Eden forever, neither does the man.
Magical realism is a key resource in this film’s tool kit, artful, unadorned astonishments that never feel as if they belong in the surreal world of Lewis Carroll. Those flourishes of fantasy are used in ways that should be allowed to surprise and delight you on director Michael Dudok de Wit’s own terms.
With its near-silent everyman protagonist, the film is less a standard character study than a sensitive exploration of the rhythms of life from its delights to its decay. The film builds to an 11th-hour emotional release that feels candid and earned. With vast imagination, keen insight and deep compassion, the film is acutely focused on the earth to which we must return.
The term masterpiece is scarcely ever brought up in workaday film criticism, but how else can one define this visionary level of mastery?
I’ll say it: “The Red Turtle” is a masterpiece.
The Red Turtle
Rated: PG for some thematic elements and peril. Director: Michael Dudok de Wit. Running time: 80 minutes. Theater: Flicks.