A scene from The Red Turtle.

Art house: The Red Turtle – wordless animated feature a sublime celebration of human life

With a style that draws on Japanese printmaker Hokusai and partly produced by Studio Ghibli, Michael Dudok de Wit’s thoughtful, mesmerising film addresses the big questions of existence.

Animated films are often lively affairs that try to overwhelm their audiences with song, dance and action-packed displays. But The Red Turtle (2017), a full-length animation by Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit, takes the opposite approach: it is serene, thoughtful, humble and moving.

The story begins with a man marooned on a desert island inhabited only by birds and crustaceans. His immediate instinct is to escape the island, but each time he builds a bamboo raft, it’s smashed to bits by a giant red turtle. In a rage, the man flips the turtle on its back and kills it. That’s when things take a mystical turn, even though the film maintains a naturalistic approach throughout.

The man acquires a family who experience joy, grief, disaster and love as they pass from youth to old age. It’s a celebration of life which shows that sad moments are as much a part of the human experience as happy times.

Aside from a few “heys!”, The Red Turtle contains no dialogue, and the emotions of the characters are expressed through body language alone. Dudok de Wit proves himself to be a careful observer of humankind, as all of his characters’ movements ring true, whether they be tender, fearful, elated or terrified.

The Red Turtle is a celebration of life’s many highs and lows.

The animation itself, created over two years, is elegant. CGI was used, but only to “grab” the movements of the characters for reference; they were then drawn by hand with a digital pen. The softly rendered island backgrounds are especially beautiful, the result of charcoal drawings that have been scanned and digitally coloured. The foliage, bamboo forests and rocks draw heavily on the style of famed Japanese printmaker Hokusai, adding a hint of exoticism.

The Red Turtle was produced partially under the wing of Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki liked Dudok de Wit’s short films and wanted to help him produce a full-length animated feature). The director says Miyazaki asked him to do his own thing, and said he shouldn’t make his film look like a Studio Ghibli movie.

A scene from The Red Turtle.

Dudok de Wit thought up the idea of a desert island story on the spot when Miyazaki’s representatives sent him an email out of the blue, asking him what film he would like to make for them. The resulting feature is as simple as a haiku, yet as meaningful as an epic novel encom­passing life, love and death. The Red Turtle depicts all the important stages of life in miniature, to mesmerising effect.

The Red Turtle will be screened on July 29, August 2 and August 6 at The Grand Cinema, in West Kowloon, as part of the Hong Kong Kids International Film Festival.