Directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok De Wit, "The Red Turtle" is at first fairly straightforward Robinson Crusoe-like fable about a sailor shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island. But what begins as a simple survival tale slowly grows into something much deeper and more enigmatic as it progresses.
After washing ashore, the unnamed man explores his new surroundings and we're given ample opportunity to appreciate the storybook illustration style of the island and its lovely, subdued watercolor palette. Though he doesn't have too much trouble finding food and water, the man is desperate to get back to the life he left behind and sets to work building a makeshift bamboo raft. But sailing out into the ocean, his raft is destroyed by a large, red sea turtle once he gets a certain distance from land. When his repeated attempts to escape the island are thwarted, the man plans to take revenge on the creature, but things soon take a mystical turn.
The film is completely dialogue-free, and despite being a mostly silent story, Dudok De Wit finds unique ways to convey the man's sense of loneliness and isolation. Shots are composed in ways that emphasizes the relative insignificance of our protagonist, contrasting him against the open sea and vast, starry skies. We also meet a few of the curious creatures that inhabit the island, and the occasional comic relief is provided by a family of sand crabs who act as silent Greek chorus as they observe the action with an amusing dispassion. Though it maintains a relatively gentle tone, there are tense moments and a positively anxiety-inducing sequence in which the man slips off a cliff and finds himself in a seemingly inescapable underwater cave.
Though "The Red Turtle" has the feel of a classic folk tale, it's actually an original story from Dudok De Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran, and the simple narrative lends the film an all-ages appeal (as long as the youngest in the audience have some patience, as the story unfolds at its own pace). The film was nearly a decade in the making, and the care taken in its gorgeously rendered hand-drawn animation is evident in every frame.
Nominated in the Best Animated Feature category at this year's Academy Awards, "The Red Turtle" is co-produced by Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation house behind films like "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Spirited Away." Though not created by any of their in-house animators, the film feels very much of a piece with their output, emphasizing the supreme power of nature and mankind's shifting, forever tenuous place within it.