‘The Red Turtle’ trades speech for an external, visual language

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I have a bone to pick with movies like Cast Away (2000): why does Tom Hanks feel the urge to talk to himself and inanimate objects? Perhaps there’s something intrinsic, something with anthropological substance, through which humans are compelled to fill dead space, whether in the real world or on screen.

The Red Turtle (2016) is an exercise in just the opposite. There is no dialogue, save for a few utterances and the word “hey”. Dutch animator and director Michael Dudok de Wit harkens back to the two-dimensional artistry of old in this world of animation — obviously a product of Studio Ghibli, brainchild and playground of Hayao Miyazaki, where the film was co-produced among a Belgian-French-Japanese trifecta. Those familiar with Miyazaki’s work often find dialogue at a premium, and sweeping animatography at the forefront.

The Red Turtle

FilmScene — opens Feb. 24

Our nameless mariner in The Red Turtle becomes stranded on a nondescript tropical island under circumstances unknown to the audience. Naturally, the man constructs a bamboo raft to escape. Twice he is submerged by an unknown entity. Then, on the third attempt, he comes face-to-face with a red sea turtle, a disgruntled guardian of the island. The now-haggard man confronts this beast as it approaches the shore, concussing the intruder and leaving it left for dead in the high-noon swelter and sand.

Immobile on its shell back, the turtle transfigures into a woman after several days. During this time we see the protagonist come to terms with the violence he committed. He seeks retribution in a vain attempt to rehydrate the creature. What follows is an oblique nod to the Adam and Eve creation story shrouded by an environmental catastrophe and the possibility of cross-species reincarnation.

The film’s open-air approach leads its pulse through the flow of imagery alongside ambient, orchestral soundscapes. The Red Turtle is less about conveying in an orthodox manner the lonesomeness and doldrums and angst of being deserted on a tropical island. The color palette is muted by day, gray-scale by night. Characters’ eyes are mere black dots, with facial expressions slightly giving way to the dire conditions at hand due to minimalist design.

Instead, the film focuses on external language: body language, droves of the island’s other inhabitants, swells of the ocean. The Red Turtle ruminates on itself, and allows plenty of room for the viewer to ruminate: How fast can our protagonist really grow a beard? Does he really not tan that well, let alone sunburn? When will I finally get a vegan protagonist? It allows the mind to amble.

That was always going to be a conceit for a film without dialogue; at what point does captivating artistry fold under the thirst for the next piece of action? Maybe that’s why the film relies upon its fable-like qualities. The Red Turtle impresses upon the viewer a challenge to the capacity in which we follow impulse, and those effects. The subdued hues and airiness force us to constantly question what will occur next — I’d imagine a similar, frantic thought-process in the mind of one marooned. The trope isn’t new. But the application makes us so thoroughly aware of all the forces at play in Dudok de Wit’s film. That’s where The Red Turtle succeeds in pantomiming strandedness.

Originally premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, The Red Turtle wasn’t released in the U.S. until January 20, 2017 (adding curious undertones, surely). The film is currently up for an Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature”. FilmScene will screen The Red Turtle starting Friday, Feb. 24. Tickets and showtimes are available on their website.

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