The Red Turtle is the latest film from the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, though unlike their best-known works (Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro), this comes from a European director, Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit. Working primarily from a shed in his garden, de Wit has crafted an elegant and incredibly moving parable.
We're thrown right in at the deep end, a lone man tossed around the ocean by a relentless storm. Where he's come from and where he was intending to go, we never discover. But he finds himself washed ashore the next morning on a small tropical island. It quickly becomes clear that this isn't much of a paradise; aside from small stretches of beach, most of the island consists of dense bamboo forest.
The man soon sets to work. Deciding to build a raft, he focuses his time and energy on dragging large bamboo logs to the beach. Time passes and, with a sail made from leaves and branches, he's ready to set to sea. He makes it past the island's natural harbour but shortly after, his makeshift vessel is destroyed by an unseen creature. Refusing to give up, he wearily swims for shore and his work begins again. A second, stronger raft is wrecked by the same mysterious force. The third time around and finally his foe is revealed as being a giant red turtle. The turtle arrives on the beach and, in his frustration and anger, the man attacks it.
I fully expected the film to take a Cast Away-style turn at this point, with a giant sea creature providing silent companionship in place of Tom Hanks' volleyball, Wilson. However, what actually follows is a profound work as emotionally impactful as it is visually stunning. The film is free of dialogue but far from silent, with an engaging soundtrack drawn largely from nature; from birdsong to extreme weather.
I found myself forgetting that I was watching an animated film, so compelling is the storytelling. And if it looks handmade, that's because it is: the charcoal-on-paper backgrounds being particularly gorgeous.
For me, the most memorable scene came early in the film, with a pool hidden deep inside a cliff which can only be escaped by swimming and squeezing through a tiny crevice, with no option to turn back. It's a claustrophobic moment which is repeated in a beautiful and terrifying way as the story progresses.
It's important that the meaning of the story is left open to interpretation. Some of what the man encounters are clearly hallucinations or dreams, but the central storyline can't be taken too literally either; we're watching a man doing all he can to survive the mental ordeal of being alone.