Shellshocked, by David Bax
Animals aren’t people but, if you’re making a documentary about them, you kind of have to pretend they are. To one extent or another, the personification of animal subjects in nature documentaries is necessary. Presenting everything they do as pure instinct isn’t particularly compelling for a human audience so it becomes imperative for the filmmaker to impose emotions, desires, motivations and personality onto the creatures.
Often this approach helps and lends much sympathy to the onscreen animals and their plight, as in the recent African Cats. In Turtle: The Incredible Journey, directed by Nick Stringer, it falls flat. The attempts to lay an individual element onto the subject of this film actually backfires, making it harder to find an emotional entry point. That’s because the loggerhead turtle we supposedly follow for the movie’s length ages more than 20 years and it’s perfectly obvious that this documentary didn’t take that long to make. As a result, the artifice is obvious enough to be distracting. How many turtles did they really use? How long did the production actually last? These are not the questions you should find yourself asking while watching a nature doc.
If only we weren’t saddled with the Finding Nemo wannabe plot contrivance of one turtle traveling the whole of the Atlantic in order to find its way back home, we’d have a more compelling film. Stringer is remarkably adept at times when it comes to translating the ocean from the perspective of one of its inhabitants. It occasionally feels as if we’re visiting another world entirely, so far removed are we from the signs of people (the ocean is really, really big, as it turns out). When we do see evidence of human civilization, it is often presented as a curious intrusion from another place. While the audience can surmise that this floating ribbon of color is likely a wayward streamer from some party on a cruise ship, the turtle cannot and so neither can the film. This is when Turtle is at its best, construing the various dangers the sea presents to a small creature.
For instance, there are gigantic sections of ocean that experience almost no current or wind. Garbage, oil, animals and other detritus can remain in these places for years on end. The film’s absolute best sequence chronicles a turtle learning to survive here and eventually finding its way out through chance after years of stagnation. Before and after this section, there are other terrors throughout. There are enormous ships, unfeelingly cutting swaths of churning water through the sea. There are waves that threaten to dash turtles to pieces on rocky shores. There are sharks and there are fishermen.
The film is at its worst when its attention turns to the ravages of mankind on the environment. There exists such a dearth of subtlety that it becomes hard to be stirred even if you know the film is right. We have done awful damage to our own world but scolding and patronizing is not the path to recovery. In addition to that, the movie is occasionally disingenuous in this regard, which only detracts from its credibility. A turtle that returns to the Florida shores after more than 20 years is supposed to be baffled by the presence of the tall buildings that line the beach? Well, I can do math and I know that condominiums existed in the late 1980’s.
It is possible that Turtle would work better with no narration at all. In addition to the problems with the writing detailed above, Miranda Richardson’s indulgent delivery is not doing the film any favors. But the cinematography, sweetened though it is with computer generated effects, is consistently the best attribute. Director of photography Rory McGuinness does fantastic work, providing us with a view of the Atlantic from the position of a small turtle navigating its vastness.
So we’re left with a visually successful film that is mostly grating in all its other aspects. However, there is one other element in which Turtle: The Incredible Journey excels. At less than 90 minutes, it is mercifully short.