I made the mistake of believing that, because it was a PG-rated Studio Ghibli release, The Red Turtle would be able to hold my 10 year old sister in law’s attention for its brief 80min runtime. It turns out that this Oscar-nominated animation is less whimsical kids’ fare like a Kiki’s Delivery Service or a My Neighbor Totoro and more of a quiet art film reflection on existential stillness. The Red Turtle is a quiet, lonely fairy tale with no backstory and, more notably, no dialogue. Its grimly whimsical retelling of The Little Mermaid (now with a giant turtle!) feels much more closely aligned with its nature as a French Art Film than its distribution through Ghibli might suggest. I wouldn’t recommend making a small child sit through it (I really should have more thoroughly researched it beforehand myself), but it does have a quiet power in its visual, emotional storytelling style that makes it worthwhile for those with the right amount of patience.
A nameless man shipwrecked on a remote island spends his days building a raft that might lead him back to civilization and his nights dreaming of signs of humanity: bridges, string quartets, etc. His few successful attempts to build a raft are disrupted by a giant red sea turtle that, seemingly without purpose, destroys his vessel by ramming it from below. Angered (and now outfitted with a beard that makes him resemble the Sad Keanu meme), the man exacts violent revenge on the turtle that leaves it similarly shipwrecked on his new island home. At this point, the narrative’s similarities to The Little Mermaid emerge and the walls dividing fantasy & reality gradually break down. The turtle transforms into a human woman, the pair’s guilt over their violent acts & their isolation lead to lifelong devotion, and they form a romantic partnership that lasts decades, making room for both awe-inspiring triumphs & emotionally devastating downfalls as Nature take its course.
The most striking aspect of The Red Turtle is its fascination with the ebb & flow cycles of The Natural World. Plant life is treated with the complex visual detail of a classic children’s book illustration. An intense contrast is established between the muted grays of night & shadow vs. the vibrant colors of day & sunshine. Baby sea turtles & scattering crabs go about their daily business no matter the significance of the times in the human lives that surround them. Violence, love, survival, death, and rebirth flow across time in a full spectrum of the human condition. Even the back & forth cycles of dream & conscious reality are treated with a respectful awe & religious reverence for their Natural power. Without a word of dialogue outside a couple desperate shouts of “Hey!”, The Red Turtle finds a lot to say about the Natural course of human existence (and I suppose, by extension, turtle existence).
I don’t mean to scare parents off from sharing The Red Turtle with young children. The film’s themes sometimes stray toward the somber & the cruel, but there’s nothing especially traumatizing about its overall narrative. The film is more “adult” in its requirement of patience for stillness & quiet. If you’re watching movies with a child who isn’t easily distracted in long stretches of silence, you’re likely to have a better time of it than I did. My personal expectations of a Studio Ghibli animation release clashing with the delivery of a silent French art film was a poor exercise in Doing Research & Reading the Room. When I return to The Red Turtle, it’ll likely be at a time when I can watch it alone in that late night or early morning headspace where the walls between dreamworld fantasy & daytime reality are more malleable than usual. It’s the cinematic equivalent of what’s referred to in pop music as “a headphones listen,” so choose your audience with a lot more care than I did.