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- SHELL SHOCK A castaway has unexpected company in Dudok de Wit’s exquisitely rendered fable.
If you see just one film this year about a desert island castaway who mates and raises a family with a giant crimson tortoise that mysteriously transmogrifies into a beautiful redhead, do yourself a favor and make it this one. Which, by the way, doesn't contain a word of dialogue. What, after all, is someone going to say?
The Red Turtle more than merits that most overused of descriptors: It's enthrallingly, impressively and mind-blowingly one of a kind. It's such a profound and poignant work, you have to wonder how it could have been made in this era of superhero franchises. I'll tell you.
For 20 years, Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit has been making gorgeous short films. In 2000, he won the Best Animated Short Film Oscar for the touching "Father and Daughter." He had no interest in expanding into features, he has said, but, six years later, he received an unexpected email that changed the course of his life.
Out of the blue, legendary director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) invited Dudok de Wit to be the first non-Japanese animator ever to make a film for Studio Ghibli. That's the highly revered house behind Spirited Away, which Takahata himself cofounded. Just like that, Dudok de Wit found himself in the business of making features.
The writer-director spent nine years on this labor of love. He even lived for a time on an island in the Seychelles, taking thousands of photographs that his small team of animators used as inspiration for the picture's extraordinary palette. The result is both a triumph of instinct for Takahata and a brilliant breakthrough for the Dutch stranger whom he sensed was his stylistic brother.
The movie begins where The Perfect Storm left off. A lone figure is dwarfed by angry mountains of ocean. He awakes on the shore of an island inhabited only by birds, an aged seal and countless simply drawn sand crabs.
Faster than you can say, "Wilson!," our protagonist has lashed together a raft and headed out to sea. But something beneath his craft dashes it to pick-up sticks — and repeats the process with each new raft. This turns out to be a large red turtle, which eventually reveals itself and gazes into the man's eyes ... let's just say more piercingly than turtles usually do. What's up? Why doesn't it want him to leave?
I've already tipped the picture's trippy hand and will limit myself to promising that you'll be amazed, dazzled and moved. The animation transcends the norm with its dot-eyed simplicity and poetic evocation of the natural world's colors and textures. The night scenes in particular, with the moon silvering the beach and its inhabitants, are things of hand-drawn beauty. The animator's clean lines — and, in places, almost impressionistic technique — do indeed share aesthetic DNA with Takahata's late-period approach.
Of how many movies can one honestly say, "It took me completely by surprise; not once did the plot take the turn I expected"? How many could be said to encapsulate the pain, strangeness and wonder of the human life cycle? In 80 minutes. Without a single word. And in cartoon form.
The Red Turtle stands alone in movie history. Dudok de Wit's phantasmagoric fable may not have won the Oscar it was up for on Sunday, but — take my word for it — it should have, and it will win you over, too.