TV Review: HBO's ' Apology Elephants'

Despite the poetry in its title, “An Apology to Elephants” is really more an indictment of circuses — a no-holds-barred attack on maltreatment of elephants in captivity and especially a circus environment, where the animals are “trained” through fear and physical abuse. Coming amid recent court action surrounding Ringling Bros., as well as legislative efforts to block such entertainment in cities like Los Angeles, it’s a timely and passionate piece of activist filmmaking. While the docu would have benefited from being fleshed out beyond its 40-minute running time, as is, it’s still an effective calling card for the animal-rights agenda.

Narrated and produced by Lily Tomlin along with director Amy Schatz and writer Jane Wagner, the doc interviews multiple experts and activists, providing insight into elephants’ elaborate social order, their intelligence and the devastating impact of subjecting them to captivity. Described as “the last great majestic animal out there,” the producers detail how bullhooks are used to instill obedience and coerce the giant beasts into performing “tricks” completely foreign to their actions in the wild.

Although the production flits around to incorporate poaching, clearly the main focus lands squarely on circuses, closing with a plea that “The elephants need our help” and calling for “compassionate change.” Nor is there any pretense of balance or objectivity, with nobody representing the circus industry interviewed, or any evidence they were approached.

Such are the luxuries of producing for HBO, the tradeoff being such one-sided arguments tend to leave curious viewers wondering what defense, if any, the likes of Ringling Bros. can muster. (For the record, a spokesman for Ringling Bros. parent Feld Entertainment — when contacted by Variety — issued the following response: “It is hard for us to comment on this show because we have not seen it yet nor were we contacted about it by the producers. In reviewing some of its descriptions available online and judging from the array of animal rights activists in relies on, it does appear to be rather one sided and anti-circus. I am disappointed we were not contacted about it as there is a great deal of pioneering work going on at our Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation; work that is dedicated to actually saving the endangered Asian elephant from extinction.”)

HBO cuts such a formidable swath through the documentary world — and occupies such a unique place within it — as to have the luxury of devoting resources to these sorts of exercises, especially when there’s a star like Tomlin involved.

Some will no doubt dismiss the project as more shrill liberal activism, as well as a valentine to PETA and the animal-rights movement. Still, when you see two one-time circus elephants reunited after years and tenderly caressing each other, “An Apology to Elephants” is one of those pet projects that, in its best moments, is hard to forget.

An Apology to Elephants

(Documentary; HBO, Mon. April 22, 8 p.m.)

Executive producers, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, Sheila Nevins; supervising producer, Lisa Heller; producers, Amy Schatz, Beth Aala; director, Schatz; writer, Wagner; camera, Alex Rappoport, Scott Sinkler; music, Joby Talbot. 40 MIN.

Narrator: Lily Tomlin.

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