When is a Studio Ghibli film not a Studio Ghibli film?
“The Red Turtle” was co-produced by the legendary Japanese animation studio and bears its name in the credits. But it was not actually made there. Ghibli contracted with a British-Dutch director, Michael Dudok de Wit, to create the film, which was animated by the French studio Prima Linea.
And yet, despite its European heritage, the film bears all the hallmarks of a Studio Ghibli film like “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Spirited Away” — vibrant, hand-painted animation, a reverent approach to the natural world, and a sense that the spiritual, fantastic world is living right next to ours, if we choose to see it.
“The Red Turtle” is a rare creature, an 80-minute animated film with no dialogue (unless “Hey!” counts) that is both beautiful and harrowing, joyful and melancholy. It’s also one that refuses to explain itself, letting audiences decide the meaning of what they’ve seen.
The film opens with a man shipwrecked on a deserted island. As he struggles to survive, the film portrays him as a tiny figure in a vast world, whether that world is a seething sea, the island’s deep forest or its endless beach. The point of view emphasizes his loneliness. His only companions are the scuttling crabs who populate the beach and give the film much of its humor.
The castaway builds a raft to carry him to freedom, but the raft is smashed from below while out on the ocean and he has to swim back to shore. He builds a bigger raft and it’s smashed. He builds an even bigger one, and then sees the culprit — a stunning, scarlet-red giant turtle, about the size of a Prius.
Banished back to the beach yet again, the man fumes. Later catching the red turtle crawling up onto the beach to nest, the man exacts a terrible revenge. And then, unexpectedly, “The Red Turtle” shifts from a hard-edged, realistic tale of survival into a gently magical fable about transformation and atonement.
“The Red Turtle” is a simple, unhurried tale, maybe too unhurried for some audiences used to more action or, you know, words. But the nice thing about its elliptical, dialogue-free approach is that it reveals itself to every viewer, young or old, at exactly the same pace. When parents and children talk about it on the car ride home, the kids may have more answers than the grown-ups.