April 3, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Mark Linfield
Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary chronicles the journey of a herd of elephants in southern Africa, as they travel across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River.
Culture Clash: The elephants must navigate their way through several potentially deadly dangers, including predatory lions and crocodiles.
Culture Audience: “Elephant” is a family-friendly film that will appeal primarily to people who like documentaries about nature and animals.
There’s a certain level of quality that people have come to expect from Disneynature, the nature/animal documentary production arm of Walt Disney Studios. Disneynature films usually chronicle a family of wild animals, focusing on a few family members that have distinct personalities or have leadership positions in the group. And there’s always an adorable “kid” animal who gets a lot of the screen time.
“Elephant” follows this formula too, but it’s a formula that works especially well for animals as intelligent and fascinating as elephants. “Elephant” also has the benefit of being filmed in diverse terrains of southern Africa, which result in the kind of stunning cinematography that’s also become a characteristic of Disneynature films.
Narrated by Meghan Markle (also known as Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex), “Elephant” chronicles the 1,000-mile round-trip journey of a herd of elephants, as they travel from across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River and back again. The elephants’ habitual migration, which has been going on for untold centuries, is prompted by whichever areas have the most water after flooding. It’s a journey filled with plenty of adventure and danger, which make this documentary more fascinating than a lot of scripted movies. The narration is good enough, even though it’s sometimes delivered in a hokey tone of voice.
“Elephant,” directed by Mark Linfield, keeps the story simple by focusing on only three of the elephants in the herd (they’re the only three elephants who are named in the film): Shani, a 40-year-old elephant; Jomo, who is Shani’s 1-year-old son; and Gaia, Shani’s 50-year-old sister who is the queen of the herd. Everyone in the herd is related in some way to Gaia, who makes the decisions on when and where the herd will migrate. As is the case with most elephant herds, it’s a female-majority group, with the only males being children or young adults. (Adult male elephants usually don’t travel in herds that have children.)
Beyond the basics of food, water and shelter, the key to elephants’ survival is for them to travel in a herd. This documentary shows that elephants, unlike many other wild animals, are very loyal to each other and will rarely leave their children behind unless forced to do so. And the three elephants who are the focus of the film have distinct personalities.
Gaia is the wise matriarch who makes careful and thoughtful decisions in leading the herd. As her respectful younger sister, Shani has the role of second-in-command who learns by observing what Gaia does. Jomo is an energetic and sometimes mischievous kid, who likes to play hide-and-seek or tag with his fellow kid elephants or sometimes other animals(such as warthogs) that the herd encounters along the way.
The documentary’s writing and narration can be a little melodramatic, with lines such as, “Like blood through arteries, the water sustains all life here” or “Social life is like oxygen for these elephants, and they embrace it face-first.” However, there’s also some humor in the documentary too, including a fart joke when one of the elephants is shown passing gas. Meghan asks in the tone of a mother catching her kids in the act, “Oh, who did that?”
The movie also uses a technique multiple times in the movie to simulate an elephant’s memory, by showing a close-up of an elephant’s eye (usually Gaia’s) and then cutting to a dazzling montage of images of life that an elephant experiences and sees in this part of Africa. And although many people might be aware that elephants use their trunks like a human would use a hand, seeing it in action in this documentary is sure to impress. Because elephants are herbivores, sensitive viewers won’t have to worry about seeing elephants preying on other animals to eat.
However, it wouldn’t be a Disneynature documentary without at least one life-or-death experience. There are definitely some heart-pounding moments in the film, especially when the elephants encounter a hungry pride of lions. The documentary also shows what happens when the elephants encounter buffalos and crocodiles. There’s also a very suspenseful moment when a baby elephant gets stuck in quicksand-like mud and is in danger of suffocating to death.
“Elephant” will also educate people on what types of plant life are preferred by elephants in this region. Elephants love mopane, but so do mopane worms, so these worms (as small as they are, compared to elephants) are competitive food rivals for elephants. Also important to the elephants’ survival are baobab trees, which have the ability to store more water than most other trees, and are welcome sustenance after long treks in the desert.
The documentary also shows how emotionally sensitive elephants are when it comes to family. When the herd encounters a set of elephant skeletons, they touch the skeletons in such a way that it evokes mournful respect. And when they walk one by one past the skeletons, it resembles a funeral procession.
One of the most visually stunning parts of the documentary is when the herd arrives at Victoria Falls. The waterfall scenes are enough reason to see this movie on the biggest screen possible. There are also some scenes captured during the sunset that are absolutely beautiful.
Watching “Elephant” will probably inspire more than a few people to want to take an African safari, even though the reality of being in this environment is a lot more dangerous than it looks in this movie. (Disney+ has a behind-the-scenes documentary about making this movie called “In the Footsteps of Elephant,” which is highly recommended viewing, only after you’ve seen “Elephant,” since “In the Footsteps of Elephant” reveals several spoilers.) “Elephant” represents some of the best of what Disneynature has to offer, and the movie accomplishes the goal of both entertaining and educating people of all ages.
Disney+ premiered “Elephant” on April 3, 2020.