“The Red Turtle” is, in many ways, a film without borders.
The movie is the debut feature from Academy Award-winning, London-based Dutch animation auteur Michael Dudok de Wit, made in France as a co-production with iconic Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. An Oscar nominee for best animated film alongside “Moana” and “Zootopia,” it opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.
Such a global lineage is appropriate for the film, the touching saga of a man stranded on a remote tropical island and learning to co-exist with the forces of nature. De Wit’s protagonist is a being free of context: his country of origin, backstory, profession or native time period all remain a mystery, as he carries with him no information about the world outside the film’s frames.
“That was a conscious choice right from the start because I found it attractive, not that we don’t know where he’s from or what century he’s from, but that we don’t feel we need to know,” de Wit said.
“He comes straight out of the ocean from a shipwreck, or at least we guess it’s a shipwreck, so we can identify with him immediately because he arrives in an unknown place and basically just has to discover where he is and discover how it feels to be in that place,” de Wit said. “In that sense, we can identify straightaway with him because we literally don’t need to know which country he is from.”
The man’s mysterious-yet-universal nature also connected to de Wit’s decision to ultimately make “The Red Turtle” a dialogue-free experience.
“As soon as the man, or the other people, as soon as they speak, lots of questions are not answered but are raised, like, ‘Oh my God, we want to find [out] more about him,’ in a way,” he explained. “The fact that we don’t even know which continent he’s from, in fact it is very simple, we can accept that. But if he starts speaking English or French then we immediately start focusing on [questions like] ‘So what accent does he have?’ and ‘What is his education?’ We kind of automatically start fishing for that, and that bothered me.
“Even one word, [if] at some point one person is calling for someone in the film, is really shouting the name, as soon as you make the name explicit, as soon as you do that, you are opening a whole new door. You are saying, ‘OK, now we have established that person is from this particular language group,’ and that opens too much. So that’s why the dialogue was eventually dropped, mostly to keep the simplicity of the absence of nationality.”
Previously nominated for an Academy Award for his short “The Monk and the Fish” (1994), de Wit won an Oscar thanks to “Father and Daughter” (2000). Those works caught the attention of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, the director of acclaimed works such as “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988) and “Pom Poko” (1994).
Studio Ghibli first approached de Wit about making what would become “The Red Turtle” more than a decade ago, and Takahata eventually took on the role of the film’s artistic producer.
“Takahata himself is very cultured and very sensitive to symbols, to narrative flows, to metaphors,” said de Wit, “so I asked him a lot of questions when we started working together. I was interested in his personal opinion.”
“The Red Turtle” also carries with it a theme repeatedly found in Studio Ghibli films: a profound respect for nature that encompasses both awe for its beauty and awareness of its potentially destructive power.
“My awe from nature was there right from the beginning,” de Wit said. “I remember even writing that in a note to [Ghibli], just [acknowledging] the beauty, not as a nature fanatic or a biologist at all — other people do that much better — but just basic, down-to-earth, natural awe [as] someone who just likes feeling the wind on his face or likes walking in the night on a beach. Things like that.
“But the other side of nature, the violent side of nature, the parts of nature that kill and exterminate even, that was not straight in the beginning in my mind. I was more thinking of the awe of nature. Actually, my awe of nature encapsulates the violent side, but I didn’t see that straightaway at the beginning.
“Once I started writing, at some point I saw myself introducing the idea of a tsunami, for instance. Then I realized that a tsunami, however violent it is — and I speak with a lot of respect, because so many thousands of people have died in the last 10 years — it has its own beauty. It has its own extraordinary beauty.”
Alex Biese, USA TODAY Network