“Africa’s Elephant Kingdom” marks an apt union of the world’s largest land mammals and the world’s largest theater screen. Juxtaposing expansive panoramas of African landscapes with astonishingly intimate lensing of an elephant clan, docu is both informative and visually stunning. The first oversized screen effort from Discovery Channel Pictures, pic makes excellent use of Imax format and ought to be a popular family item on that circuit.
Beginning with sweeping aerial shots of Mount Kilimanjaro and assorted Kenyan vistas, docu draws viewers into its sumptuous landscape, where colors are so bold and saturated as to seem almost surreal. A massive elephant lumbers onscreen to narrate the events of his clan’s history.
Over the next 40 minutes, the elephant (dubbed “Old Bull” and voiced by actor Avery Brooks) recounts a journey replete with revelations about his species. As the clan members perform their life rituals — foraging for food, competing for mates, raising children — helmer Michael Caulfield catches it all, and lenser Tom Cowan often seems to have his camera poised mere inches from the action.
Nowhere is that sense of proximity more apparent than in a terrifying sequence in which a matriarch elephant, suddenly provoked and bellowing loudly, charges angrily toward the lens. Even jaded viewers would be hard-pressed to avoid flinching as the animal plows furiously forward, her massive tusks on either side of the Imax camera.
A less violent but similarly taut sequence follows the elephants as they try to survive a drastic water shortage. When severe drought strikes, the elephants are forced to migrate in search of food and water. This particular segment adds tension and surprising poignancy. As an exhausted elephant collapses in the intense heat, his peers buttress him with their trunks, refusing to let him yield. Sometimes, however, they do not survive, and the fatal effects of the drought’s devastation are also shown. Filmmakers have done an impressive job marrying form and content.
While pic hits the familiar notes animal lovers will expect — heart-tugging shots of infant elephants struggling to their feet, for instance — it also adds unusual depth by depicting their surprising camaraderie, unexpected gracefulness and remarkable delicacy.
What doesn’t work so well are the attempts at anthropomorphosis — giving voice, names and human characteristics to the elephants. Plenty remarkable on their own merits, the elephants don’t especially benefit from having human voices and thoughts imposed upon them. Presumably intended to make the elephants more audience-accessible, the first-person (elephant) narration instead comes off as vaguely affected.
It’s the least natural thing about a film that does an otherwise exceptional job of capturing nature in all its forms.