'The Red Turtle': No dialogue, but plenty of heart in this animated marvel

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'The Red Turtle'

Yes, there are lots of colorful animals in The Red Turtle, a gorgeous, animated family picture by first-time director Michaël Dudok de Wit, which has picked up an Oscar nomination for best animated feature.

But if you go to the theater expecting Zootopia or Finding Dory, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Coproduced by France’s Wild Bunch and Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, The Red Turtle is an anti-Hollywood cartoon that bucks just about every convention that studios such as Disney and Pixar rely upon to make their pictures easy-to-swallow morsels of cultural fast food.

For one thing, the 80-minute feature doesn’t have any catchy songs. There will be no sing-alongs at this film.

Nor does The Red Turtle have any funny jokes or witty one-liners. There are no memorable catchphrases, rhyming raps, pop culture-stuffed riffs, or soliloquies.

There are no words at all.

Set on a tiny, deserted island in the middle of a vast ocean, The Red Turtle is essentially silent.

The sparse, playful  score by composer Laurent Perez del Mar (The Sweeney: Paris; Zarafa) is unobtrusive, almost invisible.

We do get the occasional sounds of nature doing its thing: There are bird cries, waves crashing on a beach or breaking on rocks. And once in a while, there’s a groan or a shout from the story’s three human characters.

The Red Turtle is so still, it will be a real shock to behold for viewers used to the frenetic, busy pace of overpackaged Hollywood cartoons.

The story is simple, illogical, mysterious, strange, and, of course, very, very sparse.

Drawn in the lovely ligne claire style of cartooning pioneered by Tintin creator Hergé, The Red Turtle is about the life of a young man who becomes marooned on an island.

Desperate to get back to his life, he builds a rather sophisticated raft and sets off, only to meet disaster when his raft is smashed up by a large sea animal. The man tries several times to escape the island, only to end up back on the beach. When he discovers the attacker is a large red sea turtle, he attacks it with all his might.

The man’s fate changes radically when he tries to atone for the violence he inflicted on the animal.

Magically, the island gives him a companion, a beautiful red-haired women. Their life together takes up the rest of the film’s brief running time. They swim and they fish, they eat and they make love. They have a son. They take him swimming and fishing. Decades pass.

I expected there’d be more to the story: that the couple would build a hut or a house, that he’d teach her his language, that she would show him her customs.

Nothing like that ever disturbs the story’s strange harmony, which is decidedly preverbal, precivilized, and in a great many ways, nonhuman. The life lived by the people in this film seems so alien to us because they live in direct contact with their environment without any mediation from language, technology, clothing, watches, cars, or any of the other trappings of civilization.

The Red Turtle is a profoundly simple meditation on the many ways we’ve become alienated from nature and from the Earth.


The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hours, 20 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for some thematic elements and peril).