The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

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The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) animated movie poster

The Red Turtle is a French animated production from the mind of a Dutch animator, presented to you by the Japanese Studio Ghibli. So much going on behind this tale of a shipwrecked man.

DirectorMichaël Dudok de Wit
StudioPrima Linea Productions, Why Not Productions, Studio Ghibli, CN4 Productions, Arte France Cinéma, Belvision
GenreDrama, romance, fantasy
Release year2016
Purchase DVDClick here to purchase from Amazon.

The Red Turtle, also known as La Tortue Rouge in French, is an interesting flick. It’s a collaborative effort between multiple producers, including the likes of Studio Ghibli of all places. Furthermore, it was directed by a Dutch animator named Michaël Dudok de Wit, who was best known for his animated short films such as Father and DaughterThe Red Turtle is his first feature-length animated movie.

Despite Studio Ghibli’s label, the movie itself isn’t what I would call ‘Japanimation.’ In fact, Ghibli serves as a producer. If my research is correct, Prima Linea is the main animation studio. Ultimately, there’s a lot of collaboration going on behind the scenes, resulting in the movie being produced in France and Belgium. And later on, it featured in the 2016 Cannes Film Festival under the category of Un Certain Regard.

But lucky lucky. This movie contains no dialogue whatsoever, so you don’t need to go through as many hoops. If anything, I recommend not looking up trailers for this movie at all and just watch it without expectations. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

Stranded

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) shipwrecked man

A nameless man was lost at sea and got caught in a storm. He woke up on an uninhabited island, where his only companions were harmless critters such as crabs. Though he was able to find food and fresh water, he was desperate to escape. But as he tried to escape the island, he had a strange encounter with a red sea turtle.

At this point, you’d probably want to go watch the movie and see the rest of the story for yourself. Because mere descriptions won’t do it justice. This is one of those movies where a plot synopsis will cheat you out of a good watch.

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I should comment on the art style. The nameless man is drawn simplistically compared to mostly everything else in the movie. His general appearance has simple linework and his colors are mostly solid with the occasional light and shadows. This character design creates a noticeable contrast with the backdrops, which were depicted in an either more realistic style (beach) or impressionist style (bamboo forest).

And yet, I never felt the man clashed with the backdrops. The contrast is very subtle. The backdrops had textures while the man and any other creature had flat colors with no textures.

Watching The Red Turtle is like watching a moving painting in a way. With the benefit of no dialogue, this movie used pure visual storytelling to move the plot forward. The pacing is also quite slow and the story progression is minimalist, meaning there will be a lot of scenes that don’t necessarily move the story forward. Rather, they’re there to set an atmosphere and get you immersed into the setting.

With a simple story, an appealing art style and great sound design, this movie… is very relaxing to sit through. It’s a sharp contrast with most animated movies of today that are normally full of action and dialogue.

And if you’re reading up to this point and have yet to see the movie, well… again, I can’t really discuss the rest of the movie without going into MASSIVE SPOILER TERRITORY, so proceed with caution.

Are you sure you wanna continue?

Okay…

Don’t say…

I didn’t warn ya!

…Seriously.

 

Life, Death and a Dream

If you haven’t guessed by now, our protagonist eventually meets the aforementioned red turtle. Specifically, a giant female sea turtle with a unique red color. And for some reason, the turtle does NOT want the man to leave the islands.

The man attempts multiple times to leave the island using a raft. But no matter how large and stable he made his raft, the red sea turtle somehow finds a way to break it.

Why does the red turtle harass this man, who simply wants to return home? Well… that’s… a very good question. Assuming this narrative is grounded to reality, the turtle wouldn’t possess a conscience or have any real reasons to torment the man. After all, it’s a sea turtle. What does it care if this one man leaves? Can it care? Does it just possess an impulsive desire to break things?

Later in the movie, the man experiences a vivid hallucination; specifically, he saw a quartet playing string instruments in the middle of the beach. This moment drove the man to insanity.

The sea turtle crawls ashore—something that you should remember for later. The man takes a stick and attempts to kill the creature, then flips it over on its back so it can’t get up. Then he leaves it there in that position, to die.

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) red-haired woman

The sea turtle does, indeed, die. However, the man does feel bad for the creature, realizing he had needlessly killed it. This guilt shows itself in a dream, where he sees the turtle’s corpse drift towards the sky, out of his reach. Later on, he tries to flip it over back on its underside, to no success. But in a bizarre twist, the turtle’s shell cracks open and he sees a red-haired woman in its place. Unable to get her out of the shell, the man keeps her under shade and attempts to give her fresh water. After some time has passed, the woman awakens. More time passes, and the man attempts to befriend the woman. He even gives up escaping the island.

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) shipwrecked man and red-haired woman

To me, this is the pivotal point of The Red Turtle. Even though the man is sacrificing his chances to see civilization again, he decides to stay on the island with the mysterious red-haired woman. And even more surprising…

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) shipwrecked man, red-haired woman and son

They managed to conceive a child together.

This is an interesting turn of events that made me question what actually happened for the rest of the movie. I have a couple of ideas, but I’ll explain along the way.

So, the baby boy is unquestionably human, leading us to believe that the red-haired woman is truly human. But as he’s growing up, the boy discovers a glass bottle, his first introduction to human society far away. Naturally, he becomes curious about the world beyond the island.

He later falls into the sea, where he manages to learn how to swim almost instantly and even has an unusual encounter with a sea turtle. We’re talking about a toddler here.

And later on, we see this boy, grown up, swimming with sea turtles using similar stroke techniques.

The family stays together through thick and thin, until the the boy decides it’s time for him to leave the island and perhaps view human society for the first time. The man and the woman remain on the island, grow old together and eventually pass away. The woman reverts back to her red sea turtle form and returns back to the sea.

Going off of David Duprey’s interpretation of The Red Turtle, the movie is essentially about the cycle of life with humanity vs. nature as the central conflict, with a subtle fairy tale twist.

The titular Red Turtle was not a malicious figure trying to torment the shipwrecked man. As David Duprey pointed out, she was simply trying to keep him safe, at an island with plenty of food and water with no dangerous predators. Even with a raft, there’s no knowing if the man would’ve survived his journey long enough to reach civilization. After all, he barely survived a dangerous storm.

But she also had her own reasons: she was looking for a mate. As a quick lesson about sea turtles, female sea turtles would come ashore to bury their eggs in the sand before returning to the sea. And that could be the reason why she went on shore in the movie: she saw the man as a potential mate. And to achieve this, she must take human form and bond with the man.

And thus, Man and Nature come together and bring new life to the world.

The son is well aware of his humanity, as well as his connection to nature. But his curiosity of the world outside of his boundaries grew over time, and so he decided to leave to explore the world. But in doing so, he must leave behind his parents. And of course, the parents have to deal with the heartbreak of letting their offspring go.

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) animated movie ending

One way to look at The Red Turtle is that the woman is some sort of divine being seeking a mate; whether she’s a nymph, goddess or a representation of nature itself. The man, no longer a part of society, still receives a fulfilling life: living in simplicity and raising his own family. Living away from civilization doesn’t deprive him of his base needs. He adapts and bonds together with nature. As he remains in nature, his son seeks out human civilization. It’s an interesting cycle that is open to interpretation.

Another, more depressing way to view the movie is that the second half of the movie was simply a dream. We’ve seen the man experience vivid dreams and hallucinations at the beginning. Maybe he did confront the red turtle. But the red-haired woman and his son were figments of his imagination, perhaps brought about from his loneliness and lack of social interaction. In being so hopeful, he dreamed up of a family and lived through the experience through his own imagination, so that he may pass away without any regrets. He didn’t actually kill the red turtle in this interpretation. He just believed he did.

Honestly, I believe my first interpretation is more solid here. Maybe it was just a straightforward story about a man raising a family on a deserted island, and his wife just so happened to be a former red sea turtle.

The Red Turtle is not a movie for everyone, but it’s certainly a pleasant experience. Without any dialogue or even character names, it managed to tell a beautiful story about life through its visuals and sound design alone. For the patient viewer, I recommend a watch.

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

$19.99
9.3

STORY

9.5/10

ART & ANIMATION

9.0/10

SCORE & VOICEOVERS

9.5/10

Pros

  • A striking art style that blends together realistic and impressionist styles.
  • A simple but emotional story of a man coming into terms with Mother Nature.
  • A wonderful score that immerse the viewer into the island.

Cons

  • Not for the average moviegoer due to a slow pacing and lack of dialogue.
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