'The Red Turtle' ('La Tortue Rouge'): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Wild Bunch
A simplistic if beautifully rendered tale of island abandon.

Oscar-winning animator Michael Dudok de Wit premiered his first feature in Cannes.

A minimalist fable where man and nature bond together in some highly mysterious ways, The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) marks the feature debut of Dutch-British illustrator and animator Michael Dudok de Wit, whose short film Father and Daughter won the Academy Award back in 2000.

Co-produced by Studio Ghibli, with the influence of its founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata very much apparent in the film’s exquisite use of line and color, not to mention its shape-shifting account of family, survival and paradise regained, this pared-down Robinson Crusoe — told entirely without dialogue — made its premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar, although its fairly simplistic narrative may ultimately play best with the 8-and-under set.

Nearly a decade in the making, Dudok de Wit’s tropical tone poem — co-written with French director Pascale Ferran (Bird People) — uses the sheer power of its graphic creations, not to mention excellent sound design by the Parisian post house Piste Rouge, to tell the story of an unnamed man who washes ashore on a tiny island and finds himself fighting the natural elements as he tries to make it out alive.

Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, but without the talking volleyball, the man attempts to build a raft that will take him out to sea. Except that each time, a hidden underwater creature keeps thwarting his escape. Soon we learn that the assailant is the red turtle of the film’s title, and, just as our hero manages to attack it, leaving the giant turtle to die on the beach, it suddenly undergoes a rather unexpected transformation.

That’s definitely the biggest surprise in Dudok de Wit’s otherwise straightforward tale, which goes on to imagine the harmonious existence of the man, and now a mysterious woman, who live on the island like the two lovebirds in The Blue Lagoon — or else like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Most of the film’s latter half depicts a placidly simple lifestyle that's only beset by a few hurdles — including a tsunami rendered in harrowingly realistic fashion — as time carries on and the couple creates a universal human experience in their own tropical paradise.

While the plot can sometimes feel too lightweight for feature length, with a score by composer Laurent Perez del Mar (Now or Never) that tends to overdo it on the gushy side, The Red Turtle benefits from the beautiful animation work of Dudok de Wit and his team, which includes Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) as creative producer and Jean-Christophe Lie (The Triplets of Belleville) as supervising animator.

The Dutch-born director has always been inspired by classic ink and watercolor illustrations from China and Japan — his 1994 Oscar-nominated short, The Monk and the Fish, is a perfect example — and here he manages to bring those drawings to life, in a fable that takes on the calm and organic aesthetic of a seaside reverie.

If the lack of a busy Hollywood-style storyline may frustrate some viewers, except perhaps for the youngest ones, then they probably don’t get the point. Like The Red Turtle’s shipwrecked protagonist, you have to simply stop fighting the current and go with the flow.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Wild Bunch, Studio Ghibli, Why Not Productions, CN4 Productions, Arte France Cinema, Belvision
Director-graphic creation: Michael Dudok de Wit
Screenwriters: Pascale Ferran, Michael Dudok de Wit
Editor: Celine Kelepikis
Composer: Laurent Perez del Mar
Animation: Jean-Christophe Lie
Creative producer: Isao Takahata
Sales: Wild Bunch

Not rated, 80 minutes