Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble direct The Elephant Queen—a documentary that closely observes an elephant herd and the delicate ecosystem they live in. As the dry season begins, the family has no choice but to journey across the African savannah and seek refuge. Academy award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor narrates this touching portrayal of the friendly majestic creatures. (KIZJ: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Katusha Jin
“Oh wise and gentle soul…do you remember when we had it all?” Chiwetel Ejiofor’s ominous and foreboding voice introduces the audience to the family of “tuskers”—a type of elephant that is facing extinction. As night comes, the long-awaited rainstorm blesses the skies. The beautiful herd of elephants rejoice as their waterholes are filled and their ecosystem can once again live on.
The Elephant Queen introduces us to the members of the family starting with their leader—Athena. The African savannah elephant is one of the few species that lives in a matriarchal society, and Athena is their queen. Following her introduction, we learn of her daughter, Princess, one of the young children, Wei-Wei, and the newborn, Mimi. But the chain of animals that rely on Athena doesn’t stop here. Stone and Deeble show the fascinating lifecycles of the frogs, killifish, goslings, chameleons, dung beetles, and many others that surround the giants of the kingdom. Although they seem completely unrelated, the film explains how each creature’s existence is directly related to the others in nature’s complex web of life.
The story sets out with heartwarming images of the elephants playing in muddied waters, and each animal going about their lives in their respective habitats. Sadly, this endearing picture does not last long. The elephants’ kingdom is in a part of Africa that has little food and water. This scarcity becomes the border between life and death when the dreaded dry season begins.
Athena must now lead her family through the arid land to a place of refuge is the herd is to survive this season. When things take a turn for the worse and a full-blown draught falls upon the animals, Athena is faced with a situation she has never experienced before. The journey is dry and there is little to no milk to nourish the newborn. Although the 50-year-old matriarch knows to follow the routes for survival which she had learnt from her predecessors, nothing can ease the painful decisions that she will have to make.
Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble create a loving and emotional story of the life of animals. The cinematography is astounding, and the editing by stone and David Dickie perfectly curates the images to the narrative. The music by Alex Heffes aids greatly in building the atmosphere of the piece. In a rather unusual manner, the film is both documentary, but also has a traditional narrative arc. The subject matter and the way it is presented makes for a movie that is neutral and safe, which works well as a family movie for children. However, the ‘safeness’ of the film is also something that begs a question: why is it so neutral? It is as though certain topics were purposely omitted so young children would not be afraid to watch it.
There is no shred of doubt about the filmmakers’ devotion towards the subject matter—they have had 25 years of experience filming wildlife in Africa and immersed themselves into the lives of these elephants for years to obtain all the footage for the film. Yet I can’t help but question why they didn’t bring in the deeper problems of wildlife. Throughout the film itself, there is no mentioning of the poaching of elephants, or the issue of climate change. It feels as though the film is so safe that it is more of a tribute film than one that calls for action. Rather than telling us blatantly what the problems are, it’s giving us the chance to fall in love with these magnificent and cute creatures. Although it does the latter very well, I sorely wish it added more urgency to the delicate and largely unknown matter. The film has so much potential to influence, but at the moment it stands as a sweet documentary that follows a narrative anthropomorphic mold. All-in-all, a lovely atmospheric family movie.
Photo Credits: Mia Collis
Featured Photo: The Elephant Queen Poster
Center Photo: Athena and her family in the African savannah
Bottom Photo: Athena leads her family in the African savannah
Q: Does The Elephant Queen pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
No. Although this is understandable since it is a documentary following animals and none of them talk!