Movie Review

★★★ ½ Tracing the loneliness of the short-distance rafter in ‘The Red Turtle’

A castaway has difficulty attempting to leave an island in “The Red Turtle.”
Sony Pictures Classics
A castaway has difficulty attempting to leave an island in “The Red Turtle.”

Films in the “Robinson Crusoe” tradition, which include “Cast Away,” “The Martian,” and even “Swiss Army Man,” tend to be minimalist existential allegories about survival, solitude, freedom, and resourcefulness. From Japan’s Ghibli studio, Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit’s sublimely animated, Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle” adds to those topics the Disneyesque theme of the cycle of life — minus the Disney tendency toward platitudes and sentimentality.

Except maybe for the crabs, the tiny regimented critters who cutely accompany the film’s unnamed castaway once he is beached after whatever shipwreck or other disaster he has experienced. Fortunately, the crustaceans don’t break into song.

Instead, they are some of the minutely observed details in de Wit’s sweeping vistas and seascapes. Few films have used color and light with such acuity — from the near monochrome of moonlight on a desolate beach to the infinite, illuminated shades of green in a bamboo forest. The imagery suggests such disparate sources as Utagawa Hiroshige, Georges Seurat, and Caspar David Friedrich.


Sound (there is virtually no dialogue) adds to the vivid actuality of the experience — a distant tropical downpour approaches with an ominous rumble, and passes as a revivifying murmur of rain. Equally exquisite is the film’s subtle, eloquent score by Laurent Perez del Mar.

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The effect is wondrous, a meticulously rendered phantasm, but despite the near paradisal surroundings, the castaway discovers — like his predecessor Adam — that it is not good that man should be alone. So after searching the island in a series of increasingly distant long shots and finding no one, he sets about making a bamboo raft to sail back to the world he left behind.

But something doesn’t want him to leave. Each time he sets sail, a creature from beneath the sea capsizes him. So he swims back and torturously assembles another craft, which suffers the same fate. Finally he howls with rage and despair at his Sisyphean task.

As in most stories of this kind, the castaway eventually finds someone — or something — to keep him company. Not to give anything away, but he ends up with better company than Wilson the soccer ball in “Cast Away,” or the corpse in “Swiss Army Man.” At first this pairing exhilarates, but, as often happens in life, things get needlessly complicated and melodramatic. At last an enigmatic clarity comes, and the ending is deeply moving.



Directed and written by Michael Dudok de Wit. At Kendall Square. 80 minutes. PG (some thematic elements and peril).

Peter Keough can be reached at