Well-intentioned but scattered in execution, “The Elephant Master” takes a long time to deliver its rather bland message that poaching is bad, friendship is good and young people are probably the key to ecological harmony. Rendered ordinary by a perfunctory screenplay that settles for introducing its characters and plopping them down in an attractive landscape, mildly entertaining pic is not nearly as exciting, touching or inspiring as it should be.
Families in search of harmless French-lingo fare will find this a holiday time-filler, but youngster-in-new-surroundings pic has only a smidgen of the cross-generational charm that made “An Indian in the City” a boffo hit in this release slot last year. When his mother dies in France, 12-year-old Martin (Erwan Baynaud) finds himself en route to Africa, where the father who left when Martin was only 2 administrates a wildlife preserve. Garoubier (Jacques Dutronc) is gruff and preoccupied, leaving his son adrift with grief and loneliness. Martin is brusquely introduced to lots of Africans, and while the many scenes of greetings may be polite and accurate, they carry a meager dramatic charge.
The only white pupil in the large and rather formal local school, Martin is befriended by a tribal boy his age, Fofana. Fofana’s surrogate father, a village leader known as “the elephant master” (although we’re shown very little of this mastery), shares Garoubier’s current concern: 200 elephants are missing.
When Fofana also disappears and the services of a shady local medicine man are needed to help locate him, Martin and his dad finally bond, while some suspense finally perks in the concluding half-hour as Martin and Fofana set out unaccompanied to find the missing elephants.
Didactic exposition moves the story sideways rather than forward. Pace picks up whenever an animal — a champanzee, a panther, a huge elephant — is on the scene,but vast majority of pic’s interactions are human-to-human.
Well-meaning plot doesn’t bear much scrutiny — surely a helicopter scanning the terrain would spot 200 missing elephants, and Garoubier has an uncanny knack for pulling up in his jeep just as a given situation is about to get out of hand. The death of a friend of the boys in an explosion seems utterly arbitrary.
Finale, in which elephants take their revenge on evil poachers, has welcome filmic energy. Lensing in open plains of Cameroon and Zimbabwe brims with local color and mostly avoids postcard-pretty shots, but only occasionally makes maximum use of widescreen format. Edits often jump between dark and light sequences to jarring effect. Agreeable, distinctly African score is not overused.
Helmer Patrick Grandperret, who won the Prix Jean Vigo with “Mona et Moi” ( 1989) and whose last African-themed film, “L’Enfant Lion” (“Sirga,” 1993) enjoyed a healthy local career, clearly lovesthe contrasts of contemporary Africa but is choppy in his storytelling.
Thesping is good throughout, with Dutronc absolutely solid and the two boys convincing.