'Turtle Odyssey 3D': Film Review

Turtle Odyssey 3D Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of SK Films
Familiar structure, fascinating star.

A kid-friendly Imax production focuses on the life cycle of the green sea turtle, and the threats to the species' survival.

The green sea turtle receives its giant-screen close-up in the strikingly photographed Turtle Odyssey 3D, which follows a well-traveled educational/inspirational template for Imax nature films. Through the mildly anthropomorphized life story of a member of the species, the Aussie production — which has been making the rounds of Imax venues and takes its latest bow at the California Science Center in Los Angeles — shows why the continued survival of this ancient creature matters.

The reptile whose story the film follows is Bunji, a fictional composite of turtles of different ages. The underwater footage is extraordinary, but some of the most remarkable camerawork in Paul Phelan and Caspar Mazzotti's film zeros in on the beachside nests of an animal whose usual habitat is the water. After ultra-close footage of Bunji bursting out of her egg, they capture a spectacle that's heart-stopping no matter how many times you've seen it: the tiny hatchlings' instinct-driven scramble across the sand to the relative safety of the ocean. The odds are against them, with predator gulls circling overhead and ghost crabs lying in wait.

That sea turtles must go through this crucible right out of the gate can only be character-building. They've flourished — and remained anatomically unchanged — for 100 million years. It's other, relatively recent dangers that pose serious problems: Because of climate change, fishing and other human activity, the planet's sea turtle population has been halved over the past century.

The filmmakers sound the dire warnings of extinction in as noninflammatory and kid-friendly a way as possible, and quickly turn to signs of hope in the form of conservation heroes — specifically, marine biologist Ian Bell and the Threatened Species Unit he heads in Queensland.

Turtle Odyssey's ecological lessons revolve around the green sea turtle's importance as a keystone species, playing a crucial role in keeping coral, seagrass and fellow brine-dwellers healthy and thriving, and their communal ocean digs in balance. But it's not all win-win symbiosis: Bunji's "wild encounters" include run-ins with great white sharks, passing glances with an Antarctic-bound humpback whale and her calf, and a cuttlefish in flamboyant neon camouflage mode.

The narration is factoid-rich and generally straightforward, and delivered in a mellifluous baritone by Russell Crowe (a definite change of tune from his channeling of Roger Ailes in The Loudest Voice). Notwithstanding a couple of humorous sound effects, the directors don't go overboard with the cute factor or force a cartoon personality upon their lead turtle. They showcase the uncanny buoyancy, and sometimes eerie mystery, of an often solitary swimmer in a great expanse, moving past a shipwreck or the rush hour of a school of fish. There are life-saving cannonball dives too. 

After an ultra-brief nod to the mating call, this Odyssey wraps with an astounding close-up during one of the great full-circle sagas in nature, as a mature turtle — let's call her Bunji — hauls her 250 pounds out of the ocean to lay her eggs on the beach where she was born. The camera zooms in. What a face.

(The film is dedicated to executive producer Jonathan Barker, who died in 2018.)

Production company: Definition Films
Distributor: SK Films
Narrator: Russell Crowe
Directors: Paul Phelan, Caspar Mazzotti
Screenwriters: Amelia McCarten, Paul Phelan
Producer: David Gross
Executive producers: John Weiley, Jonathan Barker, Wendy MacKeigan, Mike Slee, Bernard Gross
Director of photography, underwater cinematographer: Jon Shaw
Topside and aerial cinematographer: Caspar Mazzotti
Editors: Caspar Mazzotti, Paul Phelan
Composer: Michael Lira
Additional photography: Nick Robinson
Sound designer: Liam Egan
3D post producer: Stuart Monksfield

41 minutes