The goal of a storyteller, especially in the context of film, is to “show, don’t tell.” The concept, generally attributed in origin to playwright and author Anton Chekhov, suggests that the storyteller should try to eschew direct exposition, the explicit telling of what happens, choosing instead to allow the reader or viewer to interpret the meaning for themselves.
Within film, this idea reaches back into the past all the way to the days of silent films, where filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin or Alfred Hitchcock would try to minimize the amount of title cards present in a film. These pieces of text tended to tell the story to the audience instead of allowing them to piece it together from what was acted out.
“Show, don’t tell” has become the sign of a strong filmmaker, like in the works of Denis Villeneuve, where the director of Prisoners and Arrival lets the audience determine what is happening, trusting it to be smart enough to understand what he shows it.
In the vein of the early silent films, The Red Turtle, a French animated film originally known as La tortue rouge, shows its story instead of telling it, free of dialogue. Characters do not speak; instead they make noises or emote. There is no voiceover narration to tell what they are doing. No title cards interrupt the film to explain the story. It is all shown.
The story opens with a man adrift at sea. He wears all white and struggles to stay above the raging waves. It is never revealed fromwhere he came. He merely exists and his struggle begins from his very first moment.
After the appearance of the title, the man washes up on an island. He searches the island for other people. In the absence of conversation, his loneliness is more present.
As most characters stranded on a deserted island do, the man attempts to leave, constructing a raft out of thin trees, while a couple of crabs watch. He goes out to sea sailing to freedom, only to be mysteriously stopped in his path, losing his raft in the process. He swims back to the island and attempts to build another raft. He tries and fails to escape.
The man’s frustration comes out in shouts and groans as he wordlessly decries his situation. At night against a charcoal gray sky, the moon a small circle in the distance, the man dreams of flying away. On a further attempt, he discovers the source of his problems in the guise of the title creature, a large red turtle.
Later on, a woman shows up on the island and the two fall in love. Again, there are no words, but the pure connection is felt. They have a child and raise him, the three living a life of simplicity on the island. There is not much beyond this in terms of story, the narrative feeling more like the extended version of an animated short film that plays before a Disney movie.
The Red Turtle is nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Picture. The film is animated in a 2D traditional style, which feels welcome among big budget 3D animation nominees Zootopia and Moana.
The last Disney 2D animated movie was The Princess and the Frog, which came out in 2009. Even nominee Kubo and the Two Strings, a unique and small-studio stop-motion animated picture, is more expansive and grand than the French production.
The story of The Red Turtle makes the film smaller in scope and the animation style gives it a more personal feeling.
The faces of the characters are drawn in a simple fashion. Two dots make the eyes, a line becomes a mouth and an angle acts for a nose. Very little moves within the frame. There are stationary trees while a man runs through them.
The large boulders stay still and the beach remains unpopulated, save some turtles, the humans and a couple of crabs. In another lesser movie, the crabs would have been anthropomorphized, speaking and serving as a comedic relief. Their role here is as a visual motif. They bring subtle humor and company to the man on his abandoned island.
The visuals go beyond simplicity with an incredibly diverse color palette. There is the aforementioned charcoal gray night sky and there is the dark blue of the stormy sea. The forest fills the screen with greens and yellows. The days on the beach are full of blindingly off-white sand and an azure horizon. The canvas is alive with artists showing a chromatic vision of wide contrast.
One of the elements to “show, don’t tell” is the concept of the Kuleshov effect. The theory of the effect states that when there are two images bracketing a shot, the shot in the center will change the way viewers interpret the other images. A bowl of food or a playful infant will change an actor’s neutral expression from hungry to sweet.
This is what Hitchcock called “pure cinema.” It is the use of images to convey meaning, utilizing the manipulation of time and distance that film does so well.
In a film without dialogue, there is very little aside from the visuals that tell the story. There is some music and sound, but meaning is largely conveyed through imagery.
The Red Turtle is sweet and simple and available for all viewers, regardless of who they are. There is something wonderful in the pure visual storytelling that the film wordlessly conveys.