First Thoughts on The Red Turtle (2016)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation.

Since I won’t be getting around to reviewing more modern animated films for some time yet, I’ve decided to start “First Thoughts” as a way of providing a mini-review of newer films at the time of their releases.

As a fan of Studio Ghibli, I first heard about The Red Turtle a long while back, but it’s taken a year since its original release for it to make its way here to the UK.  With Studio Ghibli on hiatus since 2014, it’s great to see some new work involving them – this film was a co-production between Ghibli and Wild Bunch, a pan-European film distributor and the international seller of Ghibli’s films, which itself started out as a branch of StudioCanal, a name familiar to most UK Ghibli fans from the DVD credits.

The Red Turtle was directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit, a British-Dutch director who made his debut back in the late seventies and has done a number of animated shorts, though this is his first feature film. It premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival on May 18th, but was only released in the UK on May 26th of this year, and having just gotten back from seeing it yesterday, I can honestly say that I was blown away by its artistry.

The Red Turtle tells the simple story of a shipwrecked man stranded on a deserted island, his initial attempts to escape, and his eventual fate. That’s it. The film is very minimalistic in style, with no dialogue and a sparse cast, no cluttered subplots or unnecessary filler, no clunky exposition or wasted scenes. In many ways, it feels like an extended short, reflecting the director’s beginnings. The film is a true artistic masterpiece, beautifully done in lush colours – it’s so refreshing to see such excellent traditional animation in a world dominated by computer graphics. Computers were used here too, of course; these days most forms of animation are rarely done without them, as they do save a lot of time and money. But if only more computer-animated films could look this gorgeous!

There is a lot of symbolism present in this movie, particularly focusing on the cyclical nature of life; this is most evident in the son, who repeatedly mirrors his father’s actions over the course of his life, sometimes making the same mistakes, but always learning from them, aided by the wisdom of his parents. The film is quietly reflective, dwelling on the value of both young and old perspectives, and the importance of learning from past mistakes. As a common theme in many Ghibli features, it is perhaps not surprising that there is such a strong emphasis on the vitality and beauty of nature, but this is no mere tree-hugging call to save the planet – nature is portrayed with a vast spectrum of emotion, almost as a character of its own, ranging from the gentlest warmth in the comedic little sand crabs, to the harshest brutality encapsulated in the tsunami towards the film’s end. We marvel at the beauty of the bamboo forests which cloak the island’s slopes, then retch with the hero as he struggles to skin a dead (and clearly rotting) seal corpse. The film doesn’t hesitate to show nature off from every angle, and it makes a point of showing that man can be happy with the simplest of existences – that a person can be happy without owning lots of clutter or having hundreds of friends. The love of a few ultimately proves dearer to the man than whatever life he left behind.

In fact, the man’s past is one of the many, many questions this intriguingly ambiguous film raises. Where did the man come from, and how did he end up alone in a row boat at sea? The simplicity of his design makes it difficult to judge even his ethnicity. His attire suggests a rural existence; he is most likely a sailor of some kind, judging from his survival skills once onshore. Could the man’s inability to escape his situation be taken as a message about learning to appreciate what one has, or to make the best of the circumstances in which one finds oneself? There is a certain Eastern attitude to the film, seeming to reflect the cultural idea of “feng shui,” living in harmony with nature.

Then, of course, we have the titular red turtle itself – and the woman it becomes/is. Who is she? Is she truly a turtle, or a woman? Has she perhaps been cursed in some way, doomed to be a turtle until some requirement is met? Are her attempts to keep the man on the island for her sake… or for his? Is there an element of fantasy involved? Perhaps she is a shapeshifter, a spirit or a deity… or maybe she is simply a product of the man’s delirium. Whatever her story is, once she is introduced, we are treated to some sublime silent acting between her and the man; they never once speak a word to one another, communicating entirely through gestures (the only vocals in the whole film are wordless shouts and calls). Even with the simple, dot-eye designs, the animators are able to convey incredible amounts of emotion to the audience with just the briefest of glances, and the lightest of touches. The pair shares two dancing scenes, one underwater, with a graceful tentativeness about it as they have only just met, the other in each other’s arms, tender and loving in their old age. It’s visual poetry.

I’ve always enjoyed films of this sort (I’m a huge fan of Cast Away {2000} with Tom Hanks), but I think this is truly one of the best uses of the setting I’ve ever seen. The Red Turtle is astonishingly effective in its simplicity and artistry, and I highly, highly recommend it to any animation fans who have the opportunity to see it.


I intend to do a fuller review of this film somewhere down the line, but it probably won’t be for a long time yet, as I have plenty of older classics to explore first! Next week’s review will be of Disney’s fifth classic, Bambi – and, if I have time, I might also do a short review of their ground-breaking 1928 short, Steamboat Willie. Until next time, folks!

By Source, Fair use, – credit for film poster


5 Replies to “First Thoughts on The Red Turtle (2016)”

  1. The painterly style of the background landscapes is immersive, making the forest appear a solid wall of green sparsely populated with leaves. It is an escape to lose yourself in this progression of life without civilization, and gives gut-wrenching impact to the moments of connection between the man and the animals he encounters.

    Liked by 1 person

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