In Russell Hoban's marvelous novel Turtle Diary, one of the characters theorizes that turtles can navigate their way to Ascension Island, thousands of miles through the sea, merely “by observing the angle of the sun, like a yachtsman with a sextant.” Poetic observations such as this suggest fascinating anatomical idiosyncrasies about the species that...read more
In Russell Hoban's marvelous novel Turtle Diary, one of the characters theorizes that turtles can navigate their way to Ascension Island, thousands of miles through the sea, merely “by observing the angle of the sun, like a yachtsman with a sextant.” Poetic observations such as this suggest fascinating anatomical idiosyncrasies about the species that scientists are only beginning to comprehend. This could make an enthralling foundation for a nature documentary, especially if coupled with the visual majesty of the creatures and their ocean habitats. Nick Stringer’s Turtle: The Incredible Journey gets part of the equation right, by catching some of the aesthetic lyricism, but it lacks an adequate number of zoological intricacies to make it feel substantial. It also disappoints by straining credibility and losing focus at times.
As narrated by Miranda Richardson, Journey tells the story of a single loggerhead turtle. It begins with the moment that the animal emerges from an egg and pokes its head out into the sand and concludes 20 years into its lifespan, when the turtle returns to lay eggs on the beach where it originally hatched. That’s the subject if we take the material at face value, anyway; though the voice-overs imply that we are observing the same animal over the course of 81 minutes, the movie’s great leaps forward in time make this narration transparently deceptive. The documentary also enlists tricky editing, reminiscent of Disney’s old True-Life nature programs and the early documentaries of Jacques Cousteau, that breaks up the action into tiny pieces and reassembles it into a series of conventional dramatic episodes -- as in an early sequence with crabs chasing and devouring baby loggerheads on a beach. Stringer particularly tips his hand in a sequence involving a fisherman who catches one of the turtles and mercifully throws it back into the ocean. The gentleman appears in close-up, from the water’s surface (i.e. the reptile’s perspective) and it doesn’t take an insider’s knowledge of editing to realize that this is an actor in a staged shot.
Journey also feels oversimplified; there are no behavioral ambiguities, and the discussions of the turtles’ biological processes that do pepper the narration from time to time carefully avoid scientific posturing and grow banal. The voice-over is occasionally rescued by some strikingly poetic voice-over comments, scripted by Melanie Finn, such as a line about the turtles traveling “invisible blue highways” beneath the water. Perhaps Finn, who spent years scripting the erotic cable drama The Red Shoe Diaries, misses the lyricism of scripted dialogue. That’s certainly evident here; her poetic metaphors may be the most impressive element of this movie.
The biological oversimplification may explain why the documentary occasionally drifts away from turtles altogether, with asides about the behavior of other species that seem irrelevant to the subject. In the hands of more astute documentarians, such as Werner Herzog, this kind of essayistic tangent can satisfy; here, it seems to exist merely for the sake of filling up screen time because Stringer and co. were afraid to explore the turtles more deeply. As in the recent Disney production African Cats, the picture also tries to sidestep anything controversial (presumably out of consideration for young viewers), but here the effort is half-hearted and rather silly because it leaves copulation onscreen. We get fascinating footage of one turtle mounted by another, and the narration avoids explaining the specifics of the turtle mating process, though the meaning of the image is abundantly clear and makes one curious to know more. Perhaps Finn should have parlayed her Red Shoe knowledge into a more elaborate description of this sequence; it certainly would have made the documentary more entertaining.
Despite its flaws, though, Turtle: The Incredible Journey is sensorially pleasing and has a relaxing effect. Richardson’s soft, breezy narration, combined with the wash of the waves and an abundance of blue, feels like gentle fingers on a tired mind that can instantly put one at ease. This makes the material satisfactory on an ambient level, even as the film as a whole lacks real substance.