Most survival movies end in rescue. In “The Martian,” Matt Damon makes it home to tell his tale; in “127 Hours,” James Franco, albeit painfully, escapes the boulder that entraps him; in “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks makes it off that godforsaken island, sadly without Wilson. While these films follow the familiar structure of shipwreck, despair and rescue, “The Red Turtle,” directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit (“Father and Daughter”) details a similar narrative in completely different terms. There is no physical rescue in “The Red Turtle,” no return home, no grand welcome reception, no special on the news. The rescue is the life that our castaway makes on the island that imprisoned him. Perhaps what the film reveals is that survival is more about improving the present situation than escaping it. “The Red Turtle” is a beautifully animated film about survival, but moreso about life and the events that define it.
“The Red Turtle” begins with an unnamed castaway, thrust from his small boat onto an isolated island. He is frustrated, fed up and alone. He sets sail thrice on a handmade raft, but each time the raft is mysteriously hit from below and dismantled. Our castaway is then forced to swim back to the island, left alone yet again. He discovers that the source of his raft’s destruction is a large red turtle. The turtle makes its way to the island, and in a blind rage our castaway kills the turtle, leaving it for dead. Days pass and he feels remorse for killing the turtle; he attempts to revive it and fails. The turtle then transforms into a beautiful red-headed woman. Long story short, the castaway and turtle-turned-woman fall in love and have a baby, who possesses the human appearance of his father, but the aquatic (and turtle-like) capabilities of his mother. The son leaves to explore what else the world has to offer, leaving his parents alone on the island. Years pass and the couple has gone gray with age, our castaway dies in his sleep as an old man, lying next to his love. She wakes up to find him dead, cries over his body in mourning and turns back into the red turtle. The screen fades to black as she returns to her home in the ocean.
“The Red Turtle” is subtle both in narrative and animation. The film’s aesthetic is minimal, yet breathtaking. The simple, line-drawn characters contrast nicely with the deeply textured landscapes of the island and the ocean. The lack of dialogue, while sometimes slow, is a welcome change from the talkative anthropomorphic characters of animation’s past and present. The creatures in the film are full of personality without the need for excessive chatter. For example, the crabs develop their own dance through their charming actions and antics, like following our castaway around wherever he goes.
The narrative is simple, but with a magical, beautiful twist. “The Red Turtle” may be a tale of survival, but tells the story in a way that emphasizes thriving over surviving.