It’s fitting that “Cher & the Loneliest Elephant” opens and closes with the titular pop star’s dance anthem “Song for the Lonely,” as this uplifting Earth Day documentary stands as a cinematic love song dedicated to despondent animal co-star Kaavan, a 36-year-old elephant who inspired a global animal rights movement.
Director Jonathan Finnigan’s polished package chronicles the years-long Herculean undertaking of lawfully liberating and moving a malnourished, depressed four-ton elephant from Pakistan to a serene sanctuary in Cambodia — all in the midst of a pandemic. Debuting on Paramount Plus on April 22 before migrating to the Smithsonian Channel on May 19, it’s a resounding testament to the power of compassion and community.
To appreciate the scale and scope of Kaavan’s monumental journey from a sad, captive prisoner held in deplorable conditions to a content, calm creature roaming a 30-acre preserve, we must first understand his plight. As a calf, he was given as a gift to the president of Pakistan’s daughter in 1985, but was soon remanded to the care of the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad. He was the zoo’s star attraction, drawing large crowds, yet he was only given shelter in a small, squalid habitat. He was shackled in chains that couldn’t reach the perimeter of his enclosure, let alone his frequently dried-up watering hole. Things changed in 2012 when his lone companion, a female Asian elephant, died due to neglect. Clearly, a similar fate awaited him if nothing were to change.
Kaavan’s behavior worsened after her death. He would spend days and nights rocking himself out of boredom and mental anguish, weaving his head around, transferring his weight from side to side. While the zoo and its naive clientele nicknamed him “the dancing elephant,” one person knew better: Dr. Samar Khan, a veterinarian visiting the zoo on a lark in 2015. She brought a groundswell of attention to his case, mobilizing an army on social media and starting an online petition to help the forlorn fella. This grabbed the attention of an animal activist on Twitter, who then helped gain Cher’s support of the #FreeKaavan movement. Still, a long road lay ahead of them, which involved getting laws changed, setting up a charitable foundation, and arranging for transport.
Finnigan doesn’t overwhelm his audience with a deluge of facts from narrator Nick Daley, though there’s a lot of information to share in a rather truncated runtime. The bull elephant’s dark past is handled sensitively without being exploitative. Heartbreaking images of him in captivity are eye-opening, but not gory, so families can watch together without worry. The photo of a grief-stricken Kaavan reaching out his trunk to touch the head of his deceased elephant friend (the image that initially convinced Cher to become part of this crusade) is particularly gut-wrenching, as are shots of Kaavan hiding in his enclosure, or attempting to self-soothe. The filmmaker paints a clear portrait of his trauma and refocuses on the daunting obstacles that lead to the elephant’s bright future.
The documentarian doesn’t have to work hard to find the drama. It’s authentically captured when the activists and experts are forced to overcome numerous logistical challenges in facilitating Kaavan’s transfer. We feel the trainers’ and veterinarians’ stress and anxiety through each step in the process, tackling problems like acquiring the right size plane to hold an adult elephant, constructing the shipping container in the correct dimensions, and condensing his crate-training schedule into a shortened amount of time. Unforeseen circumstances dealing with Kaavan’s health, as well as the humans on the rescue team, also arise. It’s fascinating to watch them push through these travails, demonstrating a heartrending, steadfast commitment to the mission.
When it comes to the film’s technical construction, Finnigan takes a fairly traditional approach while also managing to find sly moments that marry form and function. Despite the use of talking-head style interviews and narration, he balances the expected with poignancy unearthed in the unspoken subtext. Playing Cher’s charity single inspired by Kaavan’s struggles, “Walls,” under footage of the animal in distress makes the tear-ducts swell.
Amid all the problem-solving hijinks, a beautiful bond forms between veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil and his large charge. There’s also levity infused, as seen when Kaavan positively reacts to his vet singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and Cher learning that elephant poop is a hot topic of conversation among other elephants. Not only does Kaavan’s tale provide hope for conservationists, preservationists and animal rights advocates, it also does so for general audiences seeking a mood boost, as they witness pure selflessness in action, inspiring the best in humankind.