One of two new Disneynature documentaries debuting on Disney+ this Spring is “Elephant” (the other is 'Dolphin Reef'). “Elephant” stars 40-year-old African elephant Shani and her young son Jomo. The mother and calf travel with their herd hundreds of miles across the Kalahari Desert on an annual quest for clean, healthy drinking water.
“Elephant” is narrated by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. Her sincere, assuring voice helps convey what these creatures are experiencing as their journey takes some unpredictable turns. Markle’s script is designed to humanize the elephants. We learn that they actually do have great memories. And we witness their raw emotions and unique sensations (represented by quick-cut and time-lapse visuals).
Elephants have a keen understanding of their connection to water and their ancestors. “Family is everything”, we’re told. 50-year-old matriarch Gaia leads the herd. She freely shares her knowledge and experience of the terrain with everyone. In an early scene a young male calf gets stuck in mud. Gaia is the only one who’s successfully dealt with such a situation. The rescue takes place in daylight (unlike some dramatic night sequences later in the film), but it’s the most fascinating and intense moment in “Elephant”.
Compared to other Disneynature docs (including “Dolphin Reef”) the storytelling here is more basic and straightforward. But the focus and spirit of the elephants makes “Elephant” a worthy watch. Generous use of cultural music helps showcase the heritage of these amazing creatures. And, as usual, the footage captured by the Disneynature camera crew is astonishing. A scene involving elephants on the edge of a waterfall is high visual drama.
Young viewers familiar with “The Lion King” will enjoy elements of that Disney animated film in the second half of “Elephant”, as warthogs, lions and hyenas all make guest appearances. And the best part: unlike with that classic’s 2019 remake, there’s no photorealism… IT’S ALL REAL!
MILD SPOILER: One of “Elephant”’s biggest surprises comes in a line of narration Markle offers near the end of the film. When summing things up after one elephant takes over the family hierarchy from another, Markle declares (clearly with a smile), “She won’t be the same… Elephants are individuals. [She] will bring her own style of leadership.” How’s that for addressing the elephant in the room?! It’s a royal treat.