The Red Turtle catches you by surprise. It defies simplicity – very little happens in the film but by the end of its very short run time it is difficult not to feel the weight of what can only be described, very tritely, as the indelible beauty of humanity, and our ability to commune with nature.
A young man finds himself washed up on a deserted island. Desperate and alone he sets about building a raft only to have it destroyed by a mysterious presence off the coast of the island. He builds it again, bigger and better, only to experience the same fate. At last he builds a vessel that even we think will take him back to civilization until the presence makes itself known and everything changes.
The Red Turtle is a story of a life well lived in the face of unendurable circumstance. It leaves human figures tiny in a vast landscape as much as it makes them a part of it. These characters are not stranded in an uncaring world but rather, an integral part of it. No dialogue is spoken but it is not missed. Dialogue would only hinder what is a deeply visual form of storytelling. The animation is simple and, unlike other Studio Ghibli efforts, does not really dive into the realm of the surreal in a pictorial way. Instead the magic is rendered as an inalienable truth of this one man’s existence, and how it becomes his entire world.
The young man finds his purpose in a fit of anger and resentment. He is alone, and every day that goes by his resilience and will to survive lessens. After his second failed attempt at building a raft he cannot even bring himself to stand up. The rain falls and the wind blows, but he cannot move for his purpose has been lost. He discovers that it is a giant red turtle blocking his path back to reality. When the turtle comes up on land he tips it over on to its back to wither in the sun.
Some hours later he feels the guilt that accompanies the willful destruction of a beautiful creature and seeks to bring it back to life – only to discover that the turtle has turned into a woman, a companion. A truly poignant moment occurs when both the man and the woman walk into the sea and deposit into the waves the last vestiges of their past. The man pushes his raft out to sea, while the woman does the same with the turtle’s shell. This moment, like a marriage, signifies their new devotion to the future. Soon after, the couple produce a child.
The young man becomes complicit, the island, over time, becomes the only home he’s ever known. Eventually their child leaves to forge his own path and the couple grows old. After a time the young man, now old, passes away gently in the night. The woman sits and fusses around his body for a time and we feel her loss.
Suddenly she turns back into the red turtle and the full weight of what has come to pass emanates from the screen. The turtle is a gentle creature who did not want this man to die alone, or live a life of nothingness. The question of self-interest remains as we recall that the turtle turned woman, actively prevented the man from leaving the island. Was she saving his life? Did she simply want to keep him for herself? These questions, like the senselessness of love, cannot be quantified. The Red Turtle is as heartbreaking as it is life-affirming. It is a simple story about the complex decisions we all make in our lives. It ultimately leaves us bereft, but, as the credits roll, we feel the value, and grace, of life.