Not a single intelligible word is spoken in Michael Dudok de Wit’s poignant animated drama “The Red Turtle,” and after a while that silence becomes companionable; you find, in this film, a restful space. In its artfully drawn frames, a simple and universal story unfolds.
A man, shipwrecked, emerges from a stormy sea onto the beach of a remote, deserted island. Unable to escape, he lives out his life there, in the company of a magical woman who first appears in the form of a giant, adobe-red turtle.
It’s a fairy tale, to be sure, but one not necessarily aimed at children (though kids with the patience for this film’s gentle pace might be fascinated by it).
The magic, when it happens, seems almost matter-of-fact; that turtle, in the early-morning quiet light, is transformed, as if the lonely man’s dream had come true. (Desperate for companionship, he’s been hallucinating, at one point picturing an elegant string quartet playing on the beach.)
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They swim in the sea, her hair spreading under the water like a cloud of ink; they walk, they talk without words – a lost soul, suddenly found.
De Wit, whose 2001 film “Father and Daughter” won the Academy Award for best animated film (“The Red Turtle” is a nominee this year), fills the screen with painterly beauty.
The sea seems to be perpetually changing color, with crashing waves seemingly made of green sea-glass giving way to sapphire-blue calm, or to the pungent orange of a sunset. A feathery flock of seagulls floats over a wash of mist; a multilayered gray sky seems to hang low from the weight of its clouds.
A tiny chorus of sand crabs (if this were a Disney movie, they’d sing), etched as delicately as lace, appears and reappears, like a timeless part of the landscape.
All’s not entirely silent – the airy soundtrack is by composer Laurent Perez del Mar – but “The Red Turtle” knows when a breath is the only sound we need.
“The Red Turtle” doesn’t answer the questions it raises, but it doesn’t need to; it’s about moonlight on the water, a hand held out to another, and the way a wave, rippling onto a shore, leaves no trace of its brief life.
‘The Red Turtle’
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Writer-director: Michael Dudok de Wit.
Running time: 80 minutes.
Rating: PG (some thematic elements and peril).