Review: ‘In the Footsteps of Elephant,’ starring Mark Linfield, Mike Holding, Martyn Colbeck, Mike Chase, Clinton Edwards, Anna Songhurst and Graham McColloch

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mike Holding in a scene from “In the Footsteps of Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“In the Footsteps of Elephant” (2020)

Directed by Vanessa Berlowitz and Tom Stephens

Culture Representation: This documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Disneynature documentary “Elephant,” which has a predominantly white film crew (with some black members) chronicling 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 film crew often has to deal with bad weather, technical limitations and the possibility of being attacked by some of the wild animals they encounter.

Culture Audience: “In the Footsteps of Elephant” will primarily to people who have an interest in how nature documentaries are made.

Martyn Colbeck in a scene from “In the Footsteps of Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Before seeing this movie, it’s essential to first watch the Disneynature documentary “Elephant.” That’s because “In the Footsteps of Elephant,” a feature-length documentary about the making of “Elephant,” has a lot of spoiler information that will reveals the outcome of the suspenseful moments in “Elephant.” Narrated by actor Jeremy Sisto (who was not part of the on-location film crew), “In the Footsteps of Elephant” is a worthy companion piece to “Elephant.” If “Elephant” had been released on home video, instead of being exclusive to the Disney+ streaming service, “In the Footsteps of Elephant” would be the equivalent of the “behind-the-scenes” extras part of a home-video release.

“Elephant” documents 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 and back again. It’s a 1,000-mile round-trip journey that can take up to eight months. So it comes as no surprise that filming of all it was a very difficult challenge. In addition to dealing with bad weather, which sometimes delayed production and caused vehicles to be stuck in the mud, the film crew often had to figure out several logistical problems, in terms of how and where to position the cameras.

Ultimately, the crew used three different ways to film “Elephant”—by vehicle, by drone and by helicopter. The filmmakers had custom-built transportation called “swamp trucks” for the shoot. And sometimes, such as when the drones had to film over the massive and powerful Victoria Falls, they were in danger of damaging their equipment.

Although “Elephant” was directed by Mark Linfield, this documentary shows that he wasn’t the biggest, extroverted personality in the crew. That title goes cinematographer Mark Holding, who has more than 20 years of experiencing filming in the Okavango Delta. He did much of the main prepping in pre-production with Linfield, so the director would know what to expect.

Holding might remind some people a little bit of the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin because of their physical similarities, although Holding isn’t quite as over-the-top with his enthusiasm as Irwin was known to be. Holding says half-jokingly that he prefers being around wild animals than most people. In the documentary, Holding comments that flying over the Okavango Delta is “absolutely the way to see it. It’s absolutely spectacular to see.”

As a director, Linfield seems to have maintained a calm and measured presence on the set. In interviews, he appears slightly annoyed but not rattled when unexpected delays happen because of the stormy or other bad weather. That’s because Linfield is an expert in filming wildlife and nature documentaries—all of his directorial credits have been so far have been filming Disneynature documentaries, starting with 2009’s “Earth.” Linfield is also married to Vanessa Berlowitz, who co-directed “In the Footsteps of Elephant” with Tom Stephens.

Another key member of the crew was biologist Mike Chase, who is described in the documentary as someone who’s been tracking elephants for more than 10 years. Chase is also the founder/director of an organization called Elephants Without Borders, which is a sanctuary for abandoned or abused elephants, and advocates against elephant poaching. (At the end of the documentary, there’s some adorable footage of Chase and other members of the Elephants Without Borders team feeding some orphaned elephants.)

Chase, who says his family has lived in Botswana for five generations, comments on elephants and his passion for rescuing and protecting them: “I’ve always been mesmerized by them … I think people around the world all too often think there are a lot of people saving the elephants—and there aren’t, really. So, to be part of a privileged few committed to safeguarding the future of elephants, I derive a great amount of enjoyment from that.” Later in the movie, he tears up and gets emotional when he says that elephants will probably become extinct at the rate that they are being killed.

Clinton Edwards, a field guide, provides a lot of the documentary’s humor. He’s easily the “class clown” of the group, by cracking jokes and making light of tough situations. There’s also a funny scene where he falls asleep when he’s supposed to be keeping a lookout for lions. His snoring alarms a fellow crew member at first because it sounds like a lion’s snore.

Camping and filming in the middle of the territory of wild animals obviously put the crew at risk. The documentary includes two of the scary moments caught on camera. In one scene, dive assistant Mathieu Van Goethem had a close encounter with a crocodile while diving underwater. The crocodile was hidden and almost blindsided Goethem, who quickly got out of the water before the crocodile could attack. He and a fellow diver then joked that they deserved to get paid more, calling it “danger pay.”

Another terrifying experience, which lasted much longer, was when field assistant Danielle “Dani” Spitzer and another crew member, were stuck in a jeep while being caught in the middle of a lion hunting prey. The lion kept hiding, so they didn’t know when it would be save to move the car. (Because of the way that cameras had to be fitted to the vehicles for outdoor filming, the vehicles often had their doors removed, leaving the film crews vulnerable in the wild.)

Luckily, no one was injured by animals on the film shoot. (Or if they were, this documentary certainly didn’t show it or mention it.) Spitzer says after going through this close call that the hardest part of it was the car causing limited vision, so the lion couldn’t be seen properly. “It felt like you were in a box,” Spitzer comments.

The “Elephant” documentary focuses on three members of the herd: 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. However, production assistant Tania “TJ” Jenkins talks about some relationships in the herd that aren’t shown in “Elephant.”

Jenkins says about the herd, “They have the same dynamics we do. The aunties fight, the sisters fight, and the teenagers scream and fight. The young boys show off and mock charge. You can really identify with them.”

Martyn Colbeck, one of the cinematographers, says that witnessing a baby elephant getting stuck in quicksand-like mud was the “most emotionally challenging” part of the film shoot for him, and how this “stuck in the mud” incident ended was something he’d never seen in all of his years of filming in the wild. Colbeck noted that it’s often very hard for animal documentary filmmakers not to feel the urge to interfere when an animal’s life is in danger, because the filmmakers are there document nature take its course, as if the cameras and humans weren’t there, not alter the outcome.

Another memorable part of the documentary includes the crew’s visit with the EcoExist Project directors (and life partners) Dr. Anna Songhurst and Dr. Graham McCollough, whose mission is for humans to peacefully co-exist with wild animals. The couple’s work includes tracking the paths of elephants and developing “elephant crossings” to make room for elephants so humans wouldn’t get in the way.

During the visit, a rare occurrence happened and was caught on camera—hundreds of elephants walked through the elephant crossing zones during the day. (These massive treks usually happen at night.) It’s one of the best parts of the movie.

It’s easy to see why everyone who had an up-close view of the elephants couldn’t help but watch in a state of awe. “In the Footsteps of Elephant” will give viewers more appreciation for the technical and creative achievements of the “Elephant” documentary, not to mention new or growing admiration for the magnificent creatures that are elephants.

Disney+ premiered “In the Footsteps of Elephant” on April 3, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Elephant’ (2020), narrated by Meghan Markle, also known as Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Elephant” (2020)

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.

A scene from “Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

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.

Review: ‘Diving With Dolphins,’ starring Roger Horrocks, Didier Noirot, Tad Luckey, Joe Mobley, Laura Engelby, Angela Zillener and Paul Atkins

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Roger Horrocks in “Diving With Dolphins” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Diving With Dolphins”

Directed by Keith Scholey

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Disneynature documentary “Dolphin Reef,” with an all-white crew of filmmakers who worked in French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida to make the documentary.

Culture Clash: The film crew sometimes had to battle the weather and unpredictable nature of ocean life.

Culture Audience: “Diving With Dolphins” will appeal mostly to people interested in documentaries about ocean animals, but it’s not essential viewing for people who see the “Dolphin Reef” documentary.

Didier Noirot in “Diving With Dolphins” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Disneynature’s “Diving With Dolphins” is a “making of” documentary about the Disneynature documentary “Dolphin Reef.” And just like “Dolphin Reef,” the movie gives almost as much screen time to humpback whales as it does to dolphins. People who’ve seen “Dolphin Reef” don’t really need to see “Diving With Dolphins” because it seems more like a series of outtakes strung together by narration rather than a documentary with a fascinating storyline.

Directed by Keith Scholey (who co-directed “Dolphin Reef”) and narrated by Celine Cousteau (granddaughter of Jacque Cousteau) has a lot of the same gorgeous cinematography that “Dolphin Reef” has, but the movie doesn’t really give much insight into the filmmakers’ personalities. It’s kind of a tedious repeat of “get to a location, set up cameras, shoot some film, and then go to the next location.”

The documentary takes place in three main areas: French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida. There are also separate shoots for the dolphins and the humpback whales. “Dolphin Reef” focuses on two bottlenose dolphins bottlenose dolphin mother named Kumu her 3-year-old son Echo), as well as two humpback whales (a mother named Moraya and her newborn female calf Fluke.

The people on the film crew include cinematographers Roger Horrocks, Paul Atkins, Didier Noirot and Jamie McPherson. They are accompanied by scientists Angela Zillener, Laura Engelby and Joe Mobley. And there are some skippers shown in the movie, such as Tad Luckey (whose Luckey Strike boat is in a lot of the humpback whale footage), Carl Ellington and Paris Basson, who’s a jet ski skipper.

Horrock has a clear preference for dolphins, which he’s been filming for decades. He says, “Dolphins are the probably most charismatic mammals that you can get in the ocean. They have a mammalian conscious, so we feel a kinship to them.” Horrock believes that dolphins are the “most welcome” animals he’s ever filmed and adds, “filming dolphins is the most physical because they’re constantly on the move.”

Meanwhile, Noirot, who used to be part of Jacque Cousteau’s crew, is described as someone who’s has more than 30 years of experience of ocean filming. He’s shown in the humpback whale film shoots. Noirot comments, “Hawaii is a good location to film humpback whales because of the whale population. You’re sure to see whales [and] crystal-clear water.”

Most of the filming was underwater, and the scenes that were film outside the water was done mainly by bot, by jet ski and by helicopter. Underwater, a scooter was used with a torpedo-like propeller to get some of the fast-moving shots. But there was a lot of down time during the film shoots, since it took several weeks to get close enough to a humpback whale and a calf to film for the movie.

Although scientist Zillener says that the crew got to know amore than 200 dolphins during the film shoot and that “to understand the animals, you have to be one of them,” there’s no effort made to single out any of the other animals (besides the four main stars) by describing their personalities in “Diving With Dolphins.” The movie would have benefited from more anecdotes about some of the animals who had standout personalities. In the movie, all of the animals appear to be generic. In “Dolphin Reef,” the some of animal personalities of the “supporting characters” seem to be crafted through creative editing.

The narration of “Diving With Dolphins” also tends to take on dramatic, hyperbolic tones, such as the description of the humpback whale courtship competition to become a female humpback’s chief protector: “It’s the most spectacular battle in nature.” Given all the wild animals in the world, that statement seems a bit too broad and subjective for a nature documentary.

One of the strengths of “Diving With Dolphins” is that it calls attention to the coral-reef crisis that desperately needs protection from human plundering and pollution that can cause climate change. The ocean is the foundation of almost every animal’s food chain, so it’s alarming that so much of the essential coral reef is disappearing due to climate change.  “Diving With Dolphins” mentions that in the three years it took to make this documentary, one-third of the film locations’ coral reef died. (More on this subject can be found in the excellent 2017 Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.”)

“Diving With Dolphins” places a lot of emphasis on tiger sharks toward the end of the film, by saying tiger sharks are “misunderstood” and have an “overblown reputation as frightening and deadly predators.”  One of the reasons why French Polynesia was chosen as a location to film was because it’s one of the few countries that have laws protecting sharks, which are necessary for the food chain.

And cinematographer Atkins, who has more than 30 years of experience filming in the ocean, calls sharks “extraordinarily beautiful and graceful.” Atkins shows through a demonstration while being surrounded by tiger sharks, that giving them a gentle nudge on the face should do the trick in preventing them from attacking you. (It’s a lot easier said than done, and there should’ve been a caveat that only professionals with animal experience should try this tactic.)

Overall, “Diving With Dolphins” is kind of a scattered film that doesn’t reveal anything surprising about the making of “Dolphin Reef.” And the movie is much more than about diving with dolphins, since the filmmakers’ interactions with humpback whales and tiger sharks also take up a great deal of screen time.

Disney+ premiered “Diving With Dolphins” on April 3, 2020.

Review: ‘Dolphin Reef,’ narrated by Natalie Portman

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Dolphin Reef” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Dolphin Reef” 

Directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary chronicles some of the coral-reef life in French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida, with an emphasis on dolphins and humpback whales.

Culture Clash: The dolphins and humpback whales are in danger of being killed by orcas.

Culture Audience: “Dolphin Reef” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about ocean animals.

A scene from “Dolphin Reef” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Disneynature’s “Dolphin Reef” is a beautifully filmed and unevenly edited documentary about coral-reef life in oceans. Viewers should know in advance that the movie isn’t just about dolphins. Humpback whales get almost as much as screen time in the movie as the dolphins, but since dolphins are “cuter,” that might be why dolphins are made the selling point in the movie’s title. The documentary is a pretty good lesson on the ocean’s ecosystem, but it also serves as a warning that much of the ecosystem is in danger of becoming extinct by the end of the 21stcentury if environmental protections aren’t implemented.

Narrated by Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman, “Dolphin Reef” focuses on a bottlenose dolphin mother and child, as well as a humpback whale mother and child. (They’re the only animals in the movie that have names.) Kumu is the dolphin mother of 3-year-old son Echo, a mischievous, playful child with a short attention span. Echo has reached a point in his life when he has to learn to be independent from his mother, but he lets other things easily distract him. Echo becomes fascinated with Moraya, a 40-foot humpback whale and her newborn female calf Fluke. The dolphins and the whales sometimes cross paths with each other, as they mingle with other ocean life and try to dodge the deadly jaws of orcas.

Without question, the best thing about “Dolphin Reef” is the gorgeous, immersive cinematography, which is usually the case with Disneynature documentaries. (And the atmosphere of “Dolphin Reef” might look kind of like a real-life version of the Pixar animation classic “Finding Nemo,” but without animals talking like humans, of course.) The vibrancy of the colors and animal life in the documentary’s coral reefs will give viewers the feeling of experiencing the beauty and dangers of the ocean firsthand.

However, unlike Disneynature films, which tends to focus on only one kind of animal, the story in “Dolphin Reef” isn’t as focused and could have benefited from tighter editing. Soon after viewers are introduced to dolphins Kumu and Echo, it veers into an educational narrative about other ocean life. The corals are the foundation, and they are kept from overgrowing by the ocean’s “gardeners”—the animals that feed on the corals. The gardeners are food for meat-eating ocean “predators” (such as dolphins, humpback whales and sharks), who are in turn eaten by “superpredators,” such as orcas.

The movie explains that Moraya the humpback whale has arrived from a cold polar location to give birth in warmer, tropical climate of the Pacific Ocean. A good deal of the documentary then shows how her whale calls attract the attention of male humpback whales, who sing and dance and then compete to become her protector. One only whale can emerge victorious.

There’s also a lot of screen time given to some of the memorable ocean residents who come in contact with the dolphins and whales. Razorfish are popular dining options for dolphins, which look for food by using a highly sophisticated sonar called echo location. It’s a skill that takes dolphins years to develop. Even though razorfish can hide in the sand, they can be detected if a dolphin has a highly attuned echo location.

Other fish who get a spotlight in the movie are humphead parrotfish, which are described as “the single most important protectors of the reef,” since they are essentially the “garbage collectors” of the ocean. In turn, the humphead parrotfish, whose enormous teeth can start to rot if not cleaned enough, are groomed smaller fish and other animals, in a ritual that goes back eons. If you ever wanted to know that humphead parrotfish excrement looks like sand, and they excrete about five tons a year, then you have this documentary to thank.

Cuttlefish are cast as the mysterious “villains” to smaller creatures, since cuttlefish have the ability to disguise themselves by changing the appearance of its scales. Cuttlefish can also transfix its prey by making its scales glow in the dark. It sounds like the kind of villain that you’d see in a Disney cartoon movie.

Also part of this ocean community are peacock mantis shrimp (notable for their obsessive grooming), crabs and sting rays. The editing of “Dolphin Reef” is clearly inspired by “Finding Nemo,” since these different ocean animals are sometimes made to look like they have cartoonish personalities, such as when the camera focuses on a wide-eyed fish that looks around and ducks when predators get into a fight. That footage might not actually be of the fish reacting to the fight, but it’s edited to look that way.

There’s even a “Finding Nemo” moment in the movie when Echo gets separated from his mother, is stuck with a friendly turtle in a very deep crevice. There’s a race against time for the Echo and the turtle to try to find an opening in the crevice, so they can rise to the ocean surface to breathe in much-needed oxygen. Moraya and her daughter Fluke also have a scary moment when they’re surrounded by orcas. Viewers can watch the the movie to find out what happened in both situations.

“Dolphin Reef” (directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill) gives the impression that it was filmed mainly in the Pacific Ocean (including French Polynesian islands and in Hawaii), but Disneynature’s behind-the-scenes documentary “Diving With Dolphins” shows that filming of the movie spread all the way to the Atlantic Ocean coast of Florida. Therefore, there’s a lot of editing that looks manipulated to appear that things are happening in the same general location, when in fact they are not.

Portman’s narration is much like a the conversational tone of an elementary school teacher when she has to say lines describing the Polynesian islands’ as providing a “backdrop of an amazing story, with characters as fantastical as a fairy tale, but as real as you and me.” And she has a dramatically ominous tone when she says of the ocean: “This world operates under a different set of rules.”

Because the movie spreads the storyline across two types of ocean mammals—dolphins and humpback whales—as well as various “supporting characters” of ocean life, a more accurate title for the movie would be “Coral Reef,” even though it’s not as eye-catching as “Dolphin Reef.” Although dolphins and humpback whales are very different in many ways, they both have striking similarities, since they are each very intelligent, group-oriented animals that have distinctive languages and show affection through touching.

“Dolphin Reef” is not the best Disneynature documentary, but it can be enjoyed by people looking for a family-friendly film that gives some eye-popping views of ocean life.

Disney+ premiered “Dolphin Reef” on April 3, 2020.