Two hundred million years ago, turtles were exclusively creatures of the land. Though their ancestors were driven into the oceans by the predatory prowess of dinosaurs, even today loggerhead turtles retain the unusual practice of birthing their young on the beach, setting the scene for one of the most amazing and improbable stories of new life on Earth. Narrated by Miranda Richardson, director Nick Stringer’s Turtle: The Incredible Journey charts this fascinating tale, and does so in a fashion as visually captivating as it is informative.
The product of more than two years of filming, Turtle opens on a beach in Florida, where we witness buried hatchlings finally burst through the sand into daylight, after almost three days of struggling blindly upward. What follows is astounding, as these delicate babies — no bigger than the palm of a child’s hand, and still soft-shelled — instinctively make their way to the sea, past a maze of hungry crabs and swooping pelicans. If they’re lucky enough to make it that far, the swirling surf batters and knocks them around, while they struggle to make it past the breaking waves and out to calmer waters. Fifty miles of nonstop swimming awaits, where they then try to hook on to a patch of seaweed that will finally afford them their first living sleep, and hopefully get picked up by the Gulf Stream, carrying them further north. Watching this unfold, it’s easy to understand why the mortality rate for loggerhead turtles is 50 percent in the first several hours of their above-ground existence.
A lot of nature documentaries aim for elegant absorption, unfolding in a mannered style at a delicate remove. But Stringer’s movie, with its intense, close-up cinematography and smart framing and editorial choices, unfolds as an almost entirely subjective experience. The result is invigorating, particularly in its first third, which comes across like the animal kingdom equivalent of storming the beaches at Normandy. With each new hurdle these baby turtles face alone — from the aforementioned predators to the perils of the stagnant Sargasso Sea, devoid of currents or winds — one’s appreciation of their indomitable spirit increases by multiple factors.
Perhaps most impressively, Stringer doesn’t let the style of his telling overwhelm the material, or cloud his instinct for narrative. Melanie Finn’s script for Richardson’s narration nicely juggles the difficulties of making the stories of these turtles palatable for different age groups, all without pandering or sacrificing factual context, as DisneyNature’s African Cats unfortunately did earlier this year. And it undercuts not one iota the visceral and emotional charge of, say, seeing a baby loggerhead turtle struggle with trying to digest plastic jetsam, get hooked by a commercial fishing line, or barely escape the clutches of a Portuguese man-of-war.
Just as much as there is a value in human empathy, there is a certain value that comes from knowing and understanding the life journeys of other creatures on this planet, because it lends awareness to our innate interconnectedness. Turtle reflects this, in a warm and involving manner. It edifies and illuminates in equal measure, and is a film that truly an entire family can enjoy. For more information on the movie, click here. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Hannover House/SeaWorld Pictures, PG, 76 minutes)