A man (voiced by Emmanuel Garijo) is tipped out of his rowing boat while in the height if a storm at sea, and struggles to climb back into it, eventually giving up as the waves toss his body back and forth like a cork in the water. Eventually, he wakes to find the boat has been smashed and he is lying on an island being nibbled at by crabs which he shoos away, but other than them and the occasional seal, there does not appear to be any inhabitants aside from a few insects and birds. He quickly realises he will have to find something to eat, so goes exploring and discovers fruit hanging from certain trees, and he can catch fish with improvised spears made from the bamboo forest, but what he really wants is to get away...
The Red Turtle, or Le Tortue Rouge if you wanted to go back to its original title, was notable as the first European production from Japan's mightily prestigious Studio Ghibli, since the story went that their head honcho Hayao Miyazaki saw director Michael Dudok de Wit's Oscar-winning short and invited him to make a film with them. The results were praised across the globe as an animation of particular beauty, thanks to its paradoxical setting as a paradise on Earth yet also a trap the protagonist cannot escape from, and with the way the plot unfolded it welcomed all sorts of interpretations as to its meaning, thanks to its air of inscrutable enigma pervading every sequence.
It began as a straightforward survival yarn, where the unnamed hero, for instance, fell into a deep pool in the rocks and had to find a way out that would have the claustrophobic viewer feeling a little tight in the chest, but once he was building a raft from the bamboo, with a sail designed from the leaves and branches, things started to grow more eccentric. We had been privy to his dreams and fantasies before as a delirium settled over him and he hallucinated as well as dreamt, but the destruction of every raft he tried to make it away from the island with triggered a very strange state as the break-up of said vessels was something he could only blame on the large, red turtle of the title.
Whether this was genuinely happening or whether that was another hallucination his desperation had brought about was difficult to say, since after while the reveries took over and informed the storyline. Yet curiously once that major point arrived when even the most pragmatic of audiences would be forced to admit, yes, the poor bloke was probably imagining all of this out of harrowing loneliness unless that turtle really has transformed into a surprisingly accommodating young woman, the tone grew less fantastical and more prosaic, or as prosaic as it could be by taking the cue of The Blue Lagoon and presenting a family situation stemming from the survivors. Even so, the thought of the chap getting it on with a weighty, dead turtle was likely to have you preferring this was all in his mind.
That mind could have been at the point of death, or at the point of rescue, but eventually you had to consider this as a metaphor of life and mankind's relationship to nature, a big subject that arguably Dudok de Wit did not quite convey with the clarity we would have preferred. Sure, it was captivating to watch, its hand drawn animation bringing a purity and personality that much of the computer animated cartoons that made up its contemporaries did not always possess, but when the motivating force behind its lead appeared to be regret at killing a majestic example of the natural world when he could have the option of being creative and fruitful instead, it did lend the material a nagging feeling of discomfort. Then again, how you responded to that depended on how you felt about the turtle, in female human form, apparently forgiving him: is it possible to take something as grave as what the man did back, and be rewarded for his contrition? That there were no answers as the credits rolled left a conundrum. Music by Laurent Perez Del Mar.
[Studio Canal's DVD has an absorbing featurette where the director gives a "how to" in his drawing techniques.]