Disney and nature films go together like Bambi and Thumper. The Mouse House began to make animal documentaries in 1948, and its long-running True-Life Adventure series (which closed up shop in 1960) won eight Academy Awards.
Disneynature reinvigorated Disney’s commitment to nature docs in 2008. And while Disneynature often times the release of these films with Earth Day (April 22), this year the unveiling of Elephant on Disney+ (along with its sister doc Dolphin Reef), couldn’t have been more timely. After all, when you’re stuck inside due to the coronavirus, what could be more appealing than traveling alongside a herd of elephants for a 1,000-mile, round-trip trek?
The star of the movie is little Jomo, a rambunctious elephant calf well worth a cuddle or two … if it didn’t already weigh around several hundred pounds. He starts his onscreen life at Botswana’s Okavango Delta, splashing in the water, hanging out with his mom (Shawnee) and chasing the occasional baboon.
But alas, such paradises never last long in nature. The herd’s leader, Gaia (elephants are matriarchal in nature, following the oldest female) knows the waters are drying up there for the season, and she must lead them to literally greener pastures.
The journey’s not easy, and it could have some disturbing elements for youngsters watching. Lions, hyenas and alligators threaten the herd. The elephants must deal with water shortages and, when they’re attempting to cross the raging Zambezi River, far too much of the stuff. One calf gets stuck in the mud and nearly suffocates. Dry watering holes are sometimes marked by elephant skeletons.
Narrator Meghan Markle (credited here as Meghan, Duchess of Sussex) tells us that it’s all too common for elephants to be swept away by the Zambezi’s currents and down the spectacular-but-deadly Victoria Falls. We see some critters get eaten, and even not every elephant survives the journey.
But this Disneynature film is far more about wonder than horror. Beautifully shot and expertly told, Elephant informs and inspires us even as it engrosses us in its story. We learn, for instance, that there is some truth to the old cliché that elephants never forget: This family of elephants relies upon Gaia’s 50-year memory during its long, dry trek. She listens for subtle signals through her feet, too: An elephant’s sensitive soles can pick up the subtle sounds of water running or even literal messages from other elephants miles and miles away.
And in its own way, Elephant reminds us of the beauty of family.
“For elephants, family is everything,” Markle tells us, and that appears to be true. Elephants are notoriously protective of their youngsters, and we see the lengths to which even aunts and grandmas will go to safeguard members of their extended clan. They apparently recognize friends and relatives from other herds they cross paths with on their journey—greeting each other with grunts and trunk nuzzles.
“Emotional bonds between elephants are as strong, and as long-lasting, as our own,” Markle says. Scientists agree and, when you watch the documentary, you don’t doubt it.
The film comes with, oddly, a little bathroom humor. Some flatulence jokes come into play, and in a behind-the-scenes look at the doc’s filming, a documentarian reaches into a pile of poo, picks some of it up and pretends to taste it.
But those brief moments, as well as the inherent peril in nature, are the only real negatives to be found in this otherwise beautiful, engaging documentary.
Elephant is a film that you shouldn’t forget.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.