You won’t meet the title character until almost a quarter of the way in – by which point in Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit’s sublime, Studio Ghibli-sponsored survivalist story, you’ve watched the movie’s unnamed shipwrecked hero endure crashing waves, hunger-induced hallucinations and other Man v. Nature trials. This minimalist Robinson Crusoe falls down cliffs and into crevasses, swim’s underwater through a claustrophobe’s nightmare of a tunnel and cracks open mangoes for sustenance, all without saying a word. (The movie is almost completely dialogue-less, unless you consider the occasional whelp of joy or scream into the abyss to be “dialogue.”) Mostly, what our man does is construct makeshift rafts out of the island’s abundant bamboo. When he takes his vessel out, something underneath the water keeps battering it from below. He washes ashore. He starts again.
Then, after we’ve seen this scraggly protagonist brave the deep-bluest seas and traipse through the most emerald-greenest forests, we finally see his nemesis: a giant red sea turtle, calmly staring the bewildered gent down before dashing his hopes one more time. (Feel free to gasp at the sheer beauty of the image – one of many such whoa-inducing moments in this near-perfect work.) The next day, upon seeing the brightly colored creature lumbering on to the beach, the man grabs a large stick and breaks it over the reptile’s head. He flips the animal on to its back and walks off. Later, wracked with guilt and shame, he returns to the spot. The turtle is dead. Then its shell cracks in half and splits open. And suddenly, in one fell swoop, we’ve fully entered Hans Christian Andersen territory.
From there, Dudok de Wit’s fairy tale about family, love, fate and the idea that, when life hands you desert-island lemons you should make second-chance mystical-beast lemonade, transforms from something ambitious and gorgeous to absolutely profound. The visuals still remain dizzyingly beautiful – a tsunami set piece looks like a Hokusai woodcut come to life; even the movie’s moody gray palettes feel eye-popping – and the animation still sticks to a clean, fluid style with characters who appear to have stepped out of Tintin comic strips. But the simple way it takes on the familiar concepts of companionship, growing up and letting go, in a way that both children and adults can unpack without losing the emotional complexity, seems quietly groundbreaking. The lack of dialogue may skew towards the experimental, but The Red Turtle‘s humanity is completely experiential in a way that matches the best Studio Ghibli joints. You understand why the legendary Japanese animation house chose Dudok de Wit as its first European collaborator. He’s an artist after Hayao Miyazaki’s own heart. And with this extraordinary movie, he’ll own yours.