'The Elephant Queen': Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Gorgeously photographed, but occasionally lapses into cutesiness.
10/18/2019

Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone's documentary chronicles the experiences of an elephant matriarch and her herd as they journey across the savannah in search of water.

It's a wonder that wild animals still have the room to roam free in Africa, considering all the camera crews that must keep getting in their way thanks to the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for nature documentaries. Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone's The Elephant Queen is the latest example striving to satisfy that demand, delivering a gorgeously photographed and detailed portrait of an elephant herd making an arduous journey in search of water. Narrated by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film is receiving a limited theatrical release prior to streaming on Apple TV+ starting Nov. 1.

The doc's regal title character, Athena, is the 50-year-old matriarch of a herd which also includes her daughter Princess, the toddler Wewe and eventually a new baby, Mimi. The family lives in a bucolic area referred to here as "The Kingdom," dotted with seasonal waterholes which are also home to an extended clan of fellow creatures including bullfrogs, chameleons, dung-beetles, killifish and terrapins, plus an adorable gosling named Stephen.

As the above names indicate, the documentary very much attempts to infuse its animal characters with distinct personalities and to weave a storyline for them. It definitely succeeds with the latter goal, as the herd becomes forced to leave their familiar environment and travel a great distance through the savanna as a result of a drought, with Athena apparently calculating their embarkation time based on Mimi's fragile newborn condition. 

The filmmakers seem torn between delivering a clinical, observational documentary about animal behavior a la the BBC's Planet Earth franchise and the sort of anthropomorphic nature tales in which Disney specializes. The tension between the two approaches results in a sometimes awkward hybrid that definitely tilts toward the second. There was so much human-seeming drama on display at times that you expect the elephants to burst into song like the photo-realistic creations in the recent Lion King remake.

There is also a little too much cartoon-style charm on display, especially when it comes to the tiny animals photographed at what the production notes describe as "elephant toenail height." We see dung-beetles vigorously fighting over, what else, elephant dung, and a fortunately pliable bullfrog emerge unscathed after being stomped on. We watch as the little creatures feed, play and engage in occasionally (PG-rated) amorous behavior, all of it accompanied by the sort of cutesy musical underscoring that lets us know we're supposed to be having a good time.

Naturally, there are more serious moments as well, including the death of one of Athena's offspring. A scene in which the herd stops to honor the carcass of one of their aged dead, their trunks lovingly caressing their former member's now bare, giant skull, may be the most touching scene you'll see in a movie all year.

Shot over four years in Kenya, The Elephant Queen boasts an undeniable authenticity, thanks to its filmmakers' quarter-century of experience making wildlife films in Africa. And while elephants are naturally camera-friendly subjects, their behavior here is captured with a particularly impressive immediacy. In its more restrained passages, Alex Heffes' score adds significant emotionality to the proceedings, as does the mellifluous narration by Ejiofor that provides a soothing counterpoint to even the more upsetting moments.

The end credits, informing us of tragic events that took place after the filming, deliver a powerful reminder that the magnificent subjects of this documentary, and so many others like it, are faced with serious dangers both natural and man-made.

Production companies: Mister Smith Entertainment, Deeble & Stone
Distributor: Apple
Narrator: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directors: Mark Deeble, Victoria Stone
Screenwriter-director of photography: Mark Deeble
Producers: Victoria Stone, Lucinda Englehart
Executive producer: Alan Root
Editors: David Dickie, Victoria Stone
Composer: Alex Heffes

Rated PG, 96 minutes