Without a single line of dialogue, The Red Turtle,by debut filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit, has been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award. And based on the strength of its old-school animation, its orchestral score and its fairytale-like storytelling, it's a unique deep dark horse in the category. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
Heavy seas at the outset. A shipwrecked man washes ashore on a deserted island. After acquainting himself with the geography, including a claustrophobic escape from an underwater cavern, he means to set sail by raft. His attempts to leave the island are twice broken up by a mysterious animal in the water. On his third attempt, he discovers the culprit — an enormous red turtle. The raft is destroyed again and the man is distraught. That night, the turtle comes ashore, and the man takes revenge. He smashes the turtle's head with a bamboo stick and turns the creature on its back. Later, overcome with guilt, he tries to feed and shade the turtle, but it has died. To the man's great surprise, the turtle turns into a woman. The man and woman form a life together on the island. They even have a child, who grows and eventually sets out on his own, bound for unknown shores. The couple grows old together.
While the animation is rudimentary by modern standards, the score — with original music by Laurent Perez Del Mar — is magnificent stuff, supplanting a need for dialogue. Keening strings and choral island dirges abound. Not since Titanic have we heard such rich, aquatic splendor in a musical accompaniment.
More importantly, the short, wordless little movie has a hypnotizing effect. It's weird, but unlike last year's Swiss Army Man, which dealt with similar themes — in my mind brilliantly and movingly, if zanily — this one presents a more accessible allegory, a warmer and more universal end.