I do want to repeat that, because it's it a big damn deal: this is an animated film that does most of its storytelling and character through body language. There's obviously no reason that such a thing couldn't exist - if anything, it would be easier to tell that kind of story in animation than in live-action, since in live-action there's the problem of physical actors whose physical acting might not be as mercilessly precise as it would need to be in order to put the meaning across. That, I guess, is exactly the point of The Red Turtle. It tells a profound emotional story using only a few simple ingredients, and it only works in animation. Partially because of the minute fineness of the physical performance of the characters, partially because of the, I am tempted to say, sub-human simplicity of the character design. These are cartoons, not highly realistic figures, though cartoons in a particular sense. For want of a better way to describe the characters, they feel quite Belgian, by which I 100% mean that they resemble the members of Hergé's Tintin universe, with the same line-drawing faces with few details and black dots for eyes. They're expressive enough to make it clear what they're feeling, but unspecific enough to permit the viewer to read ourselves into them: they are truly universal figures, with the almost mythological setting and story contributing to the sensation that we are watching primal emotions at play in bodily form, rather than characters feeling primal emotions.
Apologies for the somewhat cloying word "mythological", but what the hell else are we going to call this? A man washes up on a tropical island rich with animal life but devoid of humans. After some time trying just to survive, he builds a raft to escape, but as he enters the open sea, something unseen attacks his raft and destroys it. This happens twice more, and on the third occasion he finds that his antagonist has been a large red sea turtle. When it attempts to climb onto shore that night, he flips it onto its back in revenge. By the next night, he's come to feel guilty enough to try and save the animal, only to find that it has already died. In the morning, its shell has cracked, and it has apparently transformed into a woman.
Since that already gets us 30 minutes into a film that only runs to a grand total of 80, I will ease back from the plot synopsis, except to mention that the languid pacing does not speed up until towards the end, when it starts to speed up very quickly, and that this "take forever to describe what happens over the course of a few days and then blast through months and years at a time in a few moments" pacing feels very much of a piece with the story's folkloric aspects. I will also mention that the opening act, which is all I've talked about, holds fascination as a survival story but remains somewhat removed and academic, the second act is more interesting and grows increasingly emotional, and the final ten minutes and especially the final two minutes are pure beautiful sweetness and heartbreak - it's really hard to describe just how profoundly moving the last two minutes really are, after the whole movie develops towards them, especially since I have no intention whatsoever of indicating what those last two minutes contain.
It takes an almost surreal level of artistry to make such quiet emotionalism work. The Red Turtle is a stunning showcase for realistic character animation at its very best, and while it's worth reminding everyone that there are other forms of great character animation than realism (Don Hertzfeldt's work, notably in World of Tomorrow and It's Such a Beautiful Day, leaps to mind as an especially obvious and visible example), the pleasures and artistic possibilities of the form are certainly not to be denied. Even with the simple, comic-friendly faces of the man and the woman, they're still entirely convincing as psychological figures, based on little more than the speed of their movements, and the hesitancy or forcefulness of their gestures, or simply the pose they adopt in any given moment. It is a film that understands with great effectiveness the power of touch, which for no reason that's ever made sense to me always hits harder in animation than in live action (perhaps it's because the drawings have to be intentionally and carefully choreographed to touch, which means that it must always serve a purpose and be foregrounded) - that emotionally flabbergasting ending is triggered by nothing more complex than a close-up of one hand on another, simple lines brushing up against each other in exactly the way that best makes for a tender moment. (It's also not above tossing in some adorably personable, though still mostly realistic crabs).
The film's other great achievement as a work of animation is its superb creation of environment. This isn't just the backgrounds - I mean, it is, in the technical sense that everything which isn't character animation is background, but The Red Turtle has backgrounds that do more than simply sit there, letting the characters move against them. They move, they have dimensionality, they interact with the characters and the animals. In fact, The Red Turtle is a hybrid form - there are computer-modeled 3-D spaces throughout, painted with solid colors to make them look like the 2-D animation of the characters. This results in a rich set of locales, colored with a wide array of soft natural colors - the red turtle itself is the boldest-looking thing in a movie that largely relies on muted yellows and greens - with texture added in to create the look of a drawing or watercolor on paper. This, in turn, has the effect of making the slightest notes of depth seem that much more striking. And since the film is considerably driven by how the characters move in space, separated from each other and the land or connected, impressing upon us the reality of that space matters to the film a great deal.
The elegant artwork is lovely in and of itself, but it also allows the film to develop its story and characters at a nearly sub-perceptual level. It is a uniquely muted film, visually and in its soft audio, mostly quiet noises of the sea and Laurent Perez Del Mar's beautifully relaxing score, and I wouldn't dare suggest that this is a movie for everybody. But for anybody hoping that Dudok de Wit could keep the gracefulness and artful solemnity of Father and Daughter going for 80 straight minutes going without missing a step, I'm thrilled to say that the answer is a absolutely that he can, and then some.