The Red Turtle (Sony Pictures Classics, PG)

The Red Turtle is a fable but one told so simply and unpretentiously that it seems real.

You know it’s been an interesting year in film when there’s something to be said for every Oscar nominee for Best Picture (and for others that didn’t make it as well), but also something to be said against each one. To put it another way, while all the Best Picture nominees have their strong points, each also has such sufficient weaknesses that there’s not one that stands out to me as the best picture of the year. In the category of Best Animated Feature, a different situation presents itself: Each of the nominees are so well done, with such unity of vision, that they’re all worthy winners (and again, so are a few that didn’t make the top five). Still, among the nominated animated films, one stands out to me as ranking a little above the rest: The Red Turtle, a wordless fable directed by Michael Dudok De Wit that also has the distinction of being the first non-Japanese film produced by Studio Ghibli.

The film begins with a man fighting for survival in the sea. We never learn how he got there or who he is because such details would only disrupt the fable-like nature of the story The Red Turtle wants to tell. The man washes up on a deserted island that provides him with the necessities for survival and also with enough bamboo to build a raft on which he hopes to return, presumably, to his former life. Three times he sets off confidently, his raft outfitted with a sail to catch the breeze, but each time the raft is attacked from below, as if the shark from Jaws had wandered onto the wrong set. The third time, he sees his attacker—not a white shark but a giant red turtle.

Back on the island, the man spots the turtle crawling on the shore and, in a fit of temper, attacks it viciously before flipping it over on its back. He later regrets his actions, but it’s too late, and the turtle dies. Then things get really strange: The turtle’s shell splits in two, and inside is a beautiful woman. She looks a lot like a female version of the man and really does prove to be his better half—in her company, he learns to appreciate the beauty of the island and the many pleasures offered by a simple life in close contact with nature. He also loses the nasty temper that he formerly displayed when his plans did not work out, displayed most ominously in his violence toward the turtle.

The couple has a son who grows up happy and free in this island paradise, and who wouldn’t love a childhood free of cares, where you can spend your time climbing trees and swimming in the ocean? The son also seems to have a particular affinity with turtles, which may not be surprising considering his heritage. There’s a bit of a selkie tale in this story, but the fantastic elements are so well-integrated with the more naturalistic aspects of the film that it all works beautifully together. The Red Turtle is a fable but one told so simply and unpretentiously that it seems real.

There’s not a line of dialogue in The Red Turtle, a wise directorial choice that underlines the universal nature of the story (if the man spoke a language that would carry implications about his origins and culture). The unfussy, semi-realistic ligne claire (clear line) drawing style is a perfect match for the story, and color is used both expressively and symbolically, the most obvious example being the deep red of the turtle which contrasts with the largely desaturated palette of most of the film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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