Disney has been anthropomorphizing elephants for decades so it doesn’t come as a surprise to see them do so again in the new DisneyNature film, “Elephant” (and, yes, animal documentaries regularly anthropomorphize their subjects). Launching this Friday on Disney+ in tandem with “Dolphin Reef,” this documentary is the story of one group of elephants as they trek across Africa and back in pursuit of water and food.
Narrated by Meghan Markle, The Duchess of Sussex, “Elephant” is directed by Mark Linfield and features much of the wonderful photography we have come to expect from DisneyNature movies over the course of the past decade. Not everything is beautiful, the wide shots of the elephant family moving tend to be de rigueur rather than unique, but when the movie hits a close-up on an elephant or a part of an elephant—watching their massive feet touch the ground as they move along is particularly intriguing—it most certainly works. There are wonderful time lapse moments and gorgeous shots of Victoria Falls. Even if not perfect, it is a visual feast.
Where the movie falters is with its narrative. “Elephant” looks at the young Jomo; his mother, Shani; her sister and the leader of the herd, Gaia; and the herd as a whole. They trek from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River (and back again), and it’s just… not terribly intriguing. Despite running for a mere 85 minutes, it feels like there is extra padding in the film, a problem made worse by the fact that there are interesting things that are not explained. At one point when the elephants are being chased by lions, Jomo is practically underneath his mother, who is protecting him. During the next shot, Markle explains that the lions have successfully separated Jomo and that he is now in danger. There’s a disconnect there; an important piece of that story is missing—how did Jomo get separated—and as Jomo doesn’t die but rather is quickly rescued again, this crucial, missing, bit of tension and rising stakes feels like it’s where the actual story lies.
There are unquestionably engrossing moments as well. Early on, Gaia saves a young elephant who is stuck in the mud. The care Gaia exhibits at that moment is palpable and the camera catches the rescue in perfect fashion. It is a sequence that is not just well shot, but well explained in the voiceover. Too many other aspects, like the aforementioned lion struggle and a different moment with alligators, are not. Instead, some tales lack either a middle or a satisfying end or an overarching explanation of it all.
This is not the film’s only sin either.
As noted, one expects the anthropomorphizing of animals in such a documentary – it makes it easy for people to understand and, one hopes, doesn’t go beyond the way the animals actually function. With “Elephant,” the decision is made, however, to tell us what Gaia is thinking, and not just what she is thinking in general, but to tell us, more than once, that she is recalling the right course to get to the elephants’ destination. The documentary goes so far in such moments as to provide visuals of the places Gaia and her herd will visit on upon the way, creating a montage of images purported to be what the elephant is imagining. If the filmmakers have any knowledge of what is actually taking place in such moments, and are convinced that Gaia is seeing the route, that would be worth telling the viewer.
In the end, while “Elephant” does have some striking visuals and does offer some dramatic fare, all too often one can sense the filmmakers’ fingerprints on the story. The documentary feels as though it has been overly massaged into delivering a narrative. And, yes, by necessity documentaries are massaged into creating stories with a cogent beginning, middle, and end on a regular basis; here though, it feels particularly egregious. There is so much to enjoy about these incredible creatures and the movie would be better if it delivered more of what we can see taking place with them and less of what someone imagines is going on.
photo credit: DisneyNature