The ‘wordless wonder’ of The Red Turtle

Lost at sea: The film took director Michael Dudok de Wit nine years to make. © Wild Bunch

Today, UK cinemas will begin showing The Red Turtle — a moving animated film about a man on a desert island. It has no dialogue. Should more films tell their story without words?

The Red Turtle opens — as many great stories do — in the midst of a storm. A lost man is struggling to survive the ocean’s powerful waves. Soon, he washes up on a deserted island.

We do not know this man’s name, or where he came from, or what year it is, or how he got caught up in the tempest — and we never find out. Instead, for the next 80 minutes, we watch as he adjusts to his new life. He survives various disasters; he befriends some crabs; he tries and fails to escape. The simple story gradually becomes more surreal, as he encounters a mysterious red turtle — and, eventually, a woman.

The film, which was nominated for an Oscar and is released in the UK today, shows all of this without using any words.

This was not the original intention. The writer and director, Michael Dudok de Wit, initially thought he needed dialogue. But as he discussed this with Studio Ghibli — which helped to make the film — they realised it was not working.

After all, he says, “the film is speaking anyway. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a verbal language.” Instead, its characters express themselves through body language. They scream, laugh, and breathe. Meanwhile, nature makes its own noises, and music adds to the emotion.

It is fairly common for animated short films to be made without dialogue, but this is harder to keep up in a feature-length film.

In 2008, Pixar’s WALL-E lacked dialogue for the first 20 minutes, as did Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. All is Lost, which starred Robert Redford in 2013, had no dialogue at all. (This film was also about a man lost at sea.)

And, of course, it was silent films which first made cinema popular. WALL-E’s crew used to watch a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film every lunchtime for inspiration. “You walk away from that thinking, what can’t you tell completely visually?” explained director Andrew Stanton. “That staging and legwork was actually lost when sound came in. People got lazy.”

Don’t speak

“Why not make more films without talking?” ask some. Words are distracting — dropping them allows filmmakers to tell simple, universal stories in a much purer form. They are forced to rely on body language and facial expressions instead, which are common across all different cultures. This creates a much more human story. In fact, maybe words have become a bit too powerful in general.

What pretentious nonsense, reply others. Why should films limit themselves? Losing the dialogue is a nice experiment every now and then. But movies are compelling because they are able to combine several different art forms at once: images and music, yes — but also words. When all three work together, there is nothing else like it.

You Decide

  1. Are you hoping to watch The Red Turtle?
  2. Should more films be made without any speaking parts?

Activities

  1. Create a story board for your own short animated film — without any dialogue.
  2. Go away and watch a silent film made before 1927 (when the first “talkie” was released.) Write a 300-word review about how it tells a story without speech.

Some People Say...

“We should all talk less and see more.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The film was first shown at Cannes Film Festival in 2016, where it won the Special Prize in the Un Certain Regard category (for non-traditional films). It was released in France in June 2016, the United States in January 2017, and in Britain today. Although Zootopia won the Oscar for the Best Animated Feature Film this year, The Red Turtle has generally received very positive reviews.
What do we not know?
How many more “silent” films will be made in the coming years. There is a practical benefit of not using dialogue, as it means that films do not have to be translated into other languages. They are universal. However, audiences may be wary of going to see movies without any dialogue; it is difficult to hold someone’s attention for such a long time without speech.

Word Watch

Stories
Shakespeare particularly enjoyed this device — Twelfth Night and The Tempest both begin with people washing up in a strange land after being lost at sea. Daniel Defoe began Robinson Crusoe this way. The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, features a ship in a storm in its opening section.
Oscar
The Red Turtle was nominated for the 2017 Best Animated Feature Film. It won the Un Certain Regard special prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Michael Dudok de Wit
The Dutch animator and director is based in London. This is his first feature-length film, although he has made several shorts.
Studio Ghibli
A popular Japanese film studio, best known for anime movies like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. This is its first film with a European director, and its first co-production.
Short films
Dudok de Wit’s short film Father and Daughter, which won an Oscar in 2000, was also made without speech.
Silent films
The silent movie era spans from 1895 to 1936, although it reached its peak in the 1920s. In 2011, The Artist was made as a homage to this era.

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