Washing up on the shores of Cannes after nearly a decade of painstaking under-the-radar toil, Michael Dudok de Wit’s hypnotizing, entirely dialogue-free “The Red Turtle” is a fable so simple, so pure, it feels as if it has existed for hundreds of years, like a brilliant shard of sea glass rendered smooth and elegant through generations of retelling. The product of a unique collaboration between Studio Ghibli and Dutch-born, London-based animator Dudok de Wit, this tiny artistic treasure might as well be the adaptation of a little-known Hans Christian Andersen classic, or else perhaps that of a folk tale brought back from some remote South Pacific island. But no, this captivating archetypal narrative springs from the mind of its director, and the result is the most purely auteurist project to be found at the Cannes Film Festival this year, if by no means an obvious commercial play beyond France and Japan.
How did Japan’s most respected toon studio (whose own “Ponyo” plays like a personalized twist on Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”) manage to convince Dudok de Wit to try his hand at a feature? After all, in his control-freak perfectionism, the Oscar-winning animator had devoted his entire career to commercials and short-form projects (most notably 2000’s charcoal-drawn “Father and Daughter”), and a film like “The Red Turtle” simply could not exist in this or any other form, had Ghibli not been the one to offer him carte blanche. That story is practically deserving of a film unto itself — and according to the press notes issued in Cannes, a Dutch documentary crew allowed to make multiple visits during production is positioned to do precisely that.
In the meantime, the creatively pure result (which clearly also relied on a significant assist from “Bird People” screenwriter Pascale Ferran and a small corps of European animators employed by production studio Prima Linea) speaks for itself. The least kid-friendly feature in Ghibli’s slate — for reasons that have everything to do with audience patience, rather than subject matter — and a natural extension of the sort of minimalist, nonverbal emotional impact Dudok de Wit demonstrated in “Father and Daughter,” the film opens on a single character: a lanky, long-haired man thrown overboard from an unspecified vessel. Cut off from whatever social connections he left behind (work, family, etc.), the man is to us a blank slate upon whom we can project ourselves, and though identification is not always easy at first — in what some will find to be the longest 80-minute movie they’ve ever seen — his struggles become our own, especially during a scene in which he falls from a high cliff into what appears to be an inescapable pool of water.
Forever maintaining a certain distance from the man — and never offering so much as one subjective p.o.v. — Dudok de Wit’s storybook visual style combines hyper-simplistic characters and settings (rendered via touch-sensitive Cintiq tablets in what passes for “hand-drawn” animation these days) with charcoal-based backgrounds, lending a tangible, almost painterly texture to the digitally-rendered project. With his wedge-like nose and tiny black dots for eyes, the film’s lean, loincloth-clad protagonist isn’t nearly so detailed as the already-streamlined humans animation audiences have come to recognize in Ghibli or Disney toons, and yet, the character design makes a nice contrast with the rich ecosystem that surrounds him, soothing whatever panic being stranded in his position might bring on with in its deep algae-green exteriors and breathtaking persimmon-bright sunsets — to say nothing of the Greek chorus of sand crabs on hand to observe his every move.
Because the man never speaks, the only clue to his origins can be found in his dreams, including one in which he imagines a string quartet playing classical music at low tide. At first, the man tries to make his way back to the world he left behind, building a raft from long bamboo poles and setting out to sea — only to be obstructed by a massive red turtle nearly as big as himself, which demolishes the vessel every time he reaches a certain distance from shore. Why doesn’t the sea turtle want him to leave? And what does it stand to gain by keeping him behind? Those mysteries unfold every bit as patiently as the film’s first act, but take the movie in an entirely new direction, where we come to appreciate Dudok de Wit’s choice to withhold the sort of narrative detail that might otherwise interfere with the movie’s allegorical potential.
Paired with a woman who also doesn’t speak (her origins as abstract as if some deity had fashioned her from his rib), the man enters into what may as well be world’s first couple, and there on the island, they initiate a family. For all its primeval appeal, the island isn’t nearly so carefree a paradise as “The Blue Lagoon,” and time brings significant challenges — as when the couple’s son tumbles into the same pool his father had several years earlier, or in the midst of a tropical storm that threatens to wipe out everything they have built together. To the extent that we may already be invested in the slow, zen-like parable, such incidents serve to deepen our connection, further aided by “Zarafa” composer Laurent Perez Del Mar’s unobtrusively lovely score, which alternates between pulse-quickening percussion (during the turtle face-off) and the ethereal singing of a celestial choir (as the man surveys the aftermath of said battle).
Inviting audiences to personalize what they’re watching, Dudok de Wit actively resists imposing any sort of literal “meaning,” leaving the material open to interpretation. The experience couldn’t be more different from the break-neck, gag-driven pace of American studio animation, and though the work is a pure reflection of its creator (who consulted regularly with “Tale of Princess Kaguya” director Isao Takahata throughout the process), it embraces a certain Eastern calm, while its intuitive sense of the surreal and the central place the environment plays in the story are entirely consistent with Studio Ghibli’s other work. On one hand, the film stands completely apart the oeuvre of Japanese masters Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, while at the same time, it could only have been made under the duo’s protective, artist-empowering auspices.