A lot can happen in an hour and twenty minutes. A man can be shipwrecked and left alive but stranded on the shores of an uninhabited island; he can accept his fate, fall unexpectedly in love with a mysterious woman, and become a father; he can thrive, he can endure natural disasters, he can lead a simple existence that’s no less full or rich for its modesty. If we’re to ascribe a basic outline and structure to Michaël Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle,” the latest addition to the Studio Ghibli stable, that’s it in summation: the film is a one-man show that evolves into a tight ensemble, a portrait of a single lifetime that expands into a triptych.
But that description leaves much of the film’s depth in the margins, and frankly makes it sound drier than it actually is. “The Red Turtle” is fantastical, an intimately sketched story about totally mundane things ensconced in a wondrous package. Even better, it evolves slowly, minute by minute, and routinely alters our expectations of what we believe Dudok de Wit’s story should be about. At the onset, it’s a “man versus nature” film, in which a nameless protagonist is caught in a vicious storm at sea before washing up on the beaches of a lush, remote cay in the middle of a nameless body of water; he sustains himself on the island’s flora and fauna, builds a raft to sail himself back to civilization, and is not once, but thrice thwarted by the great maroon reptile of the title, a creature as menacing as it is majestic.
All of this happens in the first forty minutes of the eighty running time of “The Red Turtle.” Whether you would watch that movie for forty minutes more depends on whether Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” captivated or bored you in high school English. Dudok de Wit appears to fall in the latter category, and so he takes “The Red Turtle” in a wholly different direction in its remaining running time, putting the film firmly in the territory of Neil Jordan’s “Ondine” and Tomm Moore’s “Song of the Sea,” movies rooted in Irish folklore where seals shed their skins and adopt human forms while on land. Maybe that’s too much a tip of the hand, but discussing “The Red Turtle” without discussing the places it goes after following its initial premise to its logical conclusion is nearly impossible.
The man kills the turtle, you see, fed up at its staunch interference in his plans to escape his island prison. He flips the beast on its back, leaves it to die beneath the sun, and so it does. Here, “The Red Turtle” changes tacks; the man, aggrieved at his transgression, desperately attempts to resuscitate his foe as an act of penance, only to discover that the turtle has turned into a woman. She miraculously revives and abandons her shell. The man abandons his bid to leave the island. Gradually, cautiously, they bond. Eventually they have a child together, and the movie’s second half revolves around that shift in tone and perspective. You can read as much or as little ickiness out of that turn of events as you please. Their union is undoubtedly uncomfortable, less by virtue of their natures than by virtue of how their relationship begins, which is with an act of violence.
In 2017, that looks like bad optics, and those optics look worse when the man and the woman pair off. But “The Red Turtle” isn’t designed as a parable for domestic violence. It’s made with a classic fairy tale mold, where the hero (a term used loosely in this particular case) repents for a misdeed done and has their compassion repaid by a mythological agent. The big question in the film, however, is who is ultimately being repaid, and even by the time Dudok de Wit draws his story to a close we may not arrive at a definitive answer. And that’s okay. “The Red Turtle” isn’t a movie made for the cut and dry presentation of information. It’s a deceptively streamlined work of art layered with complex emotion; its style is elementary, its plot straightforward, and yet the film’s elements of craft and narrative deny easy interpretation. This is a film that must be mulled over rather than shrugged off.
It’s wordless, but it speaks volumes. It’s literally two-dimensional, but figuratively possessed of profound depth. If this is the direction that Studio Ghibli’s new crop of filmmakers will take the animation house going forward, then the Ghibli name should maintain its cultural currency for years to come. “The Red Turtle” is poetry made cinema, an exquisite existential allegory that says everything without having to say anything at all; it’s a film that finds as much joy in the adorable scuttling of a crab as grief in the aftermath of rage, where the grand enigma of life itself is contrasted with the pure, meditative beauty of ocean waves lapping at sand. You can unpack its subtleties and puzzle over its meaning as much as you like, but in the end you’re better off just surrendering to the experience of watching it. [A-]