Recommended for ages 8 and up. As this is a nature documentary, be advised that aspects of the life cycle are prominently featured.
Across four years of filming, directors Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone tracked the activities of a herd of elephants as they moved through Africa. In that time, they gathered 0.5 petabytes (a million gigabytes) of data which took 850 days to edit down into a 96-minute film. The resulting film could easily be a straight documentary chronicling the activities of a herd led by a 50-year old Tusker elephant, dubbed Athena, as they prepare for a trek across Africa to a water refugee as the dry season approaches. It could be a narrow look at how the herd reacts to their environment, navigating life-or-death choices, as they migrate. Instead, Deeble and Stone open up the scope to include all the various creatures that exist within the ecosystem built up around the activities of the herd. Narrated by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind), The Elephant Queen quickly transitions from the average documentary into an incredible tale of coexistence, love, and loss that will positively have you alternating between laughing and reaching for your tissues.
Rather than focusing solely on Athena and her herd, Deeble and Stone use them as the centerpiece from which everything else emanates. Doing so allows the directors to quantify just how significant elephants are to the ecosystem in which they reside without being more direct or intrusive. The waterhole which most of the documentary takes place around is not a natural creation, but something which the elephants themselves create with their feet. Once filled up with water, it becomes a communal place for drinking, playing, and living for creatures big (elephants) and small (killifish). Using a variety of technical techniques, Deeble and Stone manage to put the audience right into the world of each creature they follow, seeming to make each one a relative giant in their own respective story. This successfully endears each one to the audience, making every aspect of their daily lives more and more intriguing.
The aspect of The Elephant Queen that helps bridge the gap between raw footage and evocative storytelling is the incredible combination of the footage, the editing, and the storytelling from narrator Ejiofor. Written by Deeble, Ejiofor’s dialogue injects the documentary with a humanizing characteristic that comes not just from the naming of some featured animals, but from the way the story enables the audience to connect with the plight of each creature. In one sequence that perfectly exemplifies the intersection of narrative tools, Ejiofor explains how young bullfrogs possess malleable bones and then one gets run over by a dung beetle pushing a ball of elephant feces, the camera is close enough to catch the slightest glimpse of eyes bugging out of the tadpole’s small head before cutting away. It’s a hilarious moment guaranteed to elicit guffaws from the audience and it’s one of several which immediately serve to endear the subjects to the audience. A similar approach is taken later as an elephant steps on a tortoise crawling near its feet. It’s a moment which the audience may presume to be dangerous as the large mammal places its foot upon the significantly smaller amphibian, until Ejiofor’s calm voice explains that elephants use their trunks and feet, both extremely sensitive, to explore their environment. Frequently throughout The Elephant Queen the footage presents one perspective and the dialogue another, inviting the audience to look past what they see to better understand the subjects presented within their natural habitats.
Though it’s not something Deeble and Stone do frequently, they also employ sound effects to better communicate the feeling of a moment or action taking place on screen. In one sequence, Egyptian goslings are battling their conflicting instincts of staying together in their nest or following their mother on the ground and, as each jumps, a whistling sound accompanies them. This is the first noticeable moment when ambient, natural noise or part of the wonderful score by Alex Heffes (Queen of Katwe) accompanies the action on-screen and it serves to add some lightness. To the goslings, the jump is one filled with incredible trepidation, so the whistling, while unnecessary, evokes the perceived tremendous distance they must fall in order to catch up with their mother. Moments like these are delightful, but become even more captivating with the story Ejiofor spins around them. Like the gosling who consistently arrives both last and late to anything his family does, who even gets lost at one point and separated completely from his gaggle. An adorable little guy, one is compelled to feel even more for him as Ejiofor takes the anonymous gosling and names it Steven. Only the elephants are granted names in The Elephant Queen, so this one gosling is made to feel equally special as a result of the naming. The audience is also given a wondrous perspective of every creature captured on film as the camera alternates between capturing wide vistas, mid-range views around the waterhole and other locations, or extreme close-ups thanks to the steel boxes they buried in the ground at waterholes. Nevertheless, it’s the story crafted by Deeble and presented by Ejiofor that establishes an emotional connection between the audience and the subjects. It’s this emotional connection that Deeble and Stone work so hard to establish in the beginning with the introduction of Athena and her herd and it absolutely pays off by the conclusion.
The Elephant Queen is an absolute marvel, a beautiful technical achievement which also wonderfully captures nature’s inhabitants of Kenya. Though the filming took four years, the whole of The Elephant Queen is the result of eight years of work and every bit of it shows on screen. There is not a moment which does not evoke some sense of awe, wonder, love, or pain. There is not a moment which does not bring forth a sense that humans, on the whole, have no true sense of their role in the world, that we do not dominate it but share it and, in truth, squander it. Over the course of 96 minutes, Deeble and Stone invite the world to see what true harmony looks like, to consider that we are not so different from the mammals and insects with whom we share this giant blue marble flying through space. That, like us, they only want a safe place to raise their families, to endure hardships, to find comfort when those hardships become nearly too much to bear, and to celebrate in the joys of one as the joy of us all.
In select theaters beginning October 18th, 2019.
Available for streaming via Apple TV+ beginning November 1st, 2019.
For more information on The Elephant Queen, head to the official Apple TV+ website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.