In the grand, hoary tradition of Disney nature documentaries, “The Elephant Queen” presents the plight of African pachyderms as a story with heartrending characters and traditional narrative arcs — the circle of life examined over a year on the savannah. “Oh wise and gentle soul,” begins Chiwetel Ejiofor’s voiceover, like the hushed dialectic of a Terrence Malick film, referring to the giant-tusked, 50-year-old matriarch who leads her family through perils both ancient and climate-influenced. There’s no denying the emotional pull of Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble’s storytelling or the vivid rapture of the images, but “The Elephant Queen” adheres too closely to the parameters of family-friendly nature docs, and the formula doesn’t always serve it well.
The wise and gentle soul in question is named Athena, who learned how to survive from her elders but faces additional challenges due to the scarcities of a changing landscape. “Do you remember when we had it all?” asks Ejiofor, as if channeling a message from her ancestors, who perhaps didn’t have to manage the twin threats of poachers and extended droughts. When “The Elephant Queen” opens, however, Athena and her herd do seem to have it all, splashing around the watering holes they’ve dug out in anticipation of a nourishing rainstorm. In these happy times, the film takes the opportunity to introduce the playful youngsters in Athena’s herd, like the “naughty” Wei-Wei and Mimi, a newborn that struggles to keep up with the rest.
There are side characters in the elephant’s world, too, who rely on the same ecological phenomena to continue their species. Foam frogs create tadpoles out of cotton-candy nests that, in turn, feed the tiny fish that populate the waterholes while they last. Egyptian geese nurture their chicks for two months before they leave the perch, though one, a cute little straggler named Steven, needs some luck to stay close to his parents. There are tortoises, too, and dung beetles that scrap over a bounty of elephant droppings before the winner arduously tucks a sample into the soft earth for later use. In this early section of the film, Stone and Deeble delight in animals at play in an environment of sun-kissed fertility and balance.
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Then comes the dry season. It’s entirely expected that Athena and her herd have a journey ahead of them after the water dries up; in fact, there are paths that have been laid out by generations of giant-huskers between their home territory and the refuge they seek. But when the dry season becomes an out-and-out drought, Athena has to make difficult choices that risk starvation on one hand and dehydration on the other. Either way, the calves might run out of mother’s milk and not survive. “The Elephant Queen” respects the burden of these decisions and their consequences even while it’s guilty of anthropomorphizing the melancholy and grief of these animals as hardships pile up, thus projecting emotions onto its “characters” that are better left for the audience to feel.
At least Stone and Deeble have the footage to support their narrative. Deeble, the credited cinematographer, gets spectacularly intimate and beautiful shots of the elephants and their animal friends. The film is at its best when it lays out the entire ecosystem species by species, each relying on the other in a delicate chain of life, death, verdancy and sustenance. Without saying as much, Stone and Debble suggest the essentials of survival and how the threat to elephants like Athena can devastate other animals down the chain. A dung beetle needs dung, after all.
Yet “The Elephant Queen” curiously underplays the mortal threat facing Athena and her ilk. For all the mellifluousness of Ejiofor’s narration, the words “climate change” never come up, much less a more substantive overview of the challenges facing giant-tusked elephants now and in the future. Stone and Deeble cover some heartbreaking moments, but they’re made to seem like anomalous events rather than a more permanent obstacle. These omissions become especially untenable in the closing credits, which deliver some disquieting news that the film itself seems too soft-hearted to reveal. There’s a gap between the story Stone and Deeble want to tell about love and family, and the much grimmer story nature itself is telling, in unsentimental terms. In the end, it’s hard to reconcile the two.