It’s about wild animals. It’s narrated by Meghan Markle. And it’s one of the first Disneynature films to be released as a Disney+ exclusive. That ought to be enough give “Elephant” a shot of pop-culture currency rare for a nature documentary, and attract some curious viewers who’d otherwise be interested in “Tiger King” or “The Mandalorian.”
Make no mistake, though: “Elephant,” premiering on April 3 on Disney+ alongside another Disneynature doc, “Dolphin Reef,” does not have the train-wreck appeal of “Tiger King.” It’s got some big cats (lions, in this case) who briefly threaten our plucky pachyderms, but no crazy people around them. And Markle, who is listed in the credits as “Meghan, Duchess of Sussex” and who came on board in return for a hefty Disney donation to the Elephants Without Borders charity she supports, is a nondescript narrator who mostly stays out of the way; if you didn’t know it was her, you wouldn’t tag the playful narration as coming from anyone of note.
“Elephant,” directed by Mark Linfield and Vanessa Berlowitz, is simply another Disneynature documentary of the kind that are typically released in theaters in April around Earth Day. The film drops us far from civilization and brings us up close with wildlife, thanks to spectacular footage obtained over months of painstaking work, and then imbues its nonhuman characters with human names and suspiciously human motivations.
This is a lucrative market for Disney, with its nature films regularly showing up on the list of top-grossing documentaries before Disney+ and the coronavirus pushed films like this out of the now-empty multiplexes. Nature docs were even a company mainstay between 1948 and 1960, when the “True-Life Adventures” series released 14 films and won eight Oscars.
Those films were occasionally met with complaints that their filmmakers manufactured nonexistent narratives and at times anthropomorphized their characters only slightly less than, say, Bambi’s woodland friends. You wouldn’t be that harsh with “Elephant,” which chronicles an annual trek across southern Africa that has been taking place for hundreds of years — but at the same time, it’s hard to truly buy into the idea that the film’s narration is accurately describing what’s going through the minds of these animals.
After all, when two groups of elephants encounter each other on their journey across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls, do they really treat it as “a wonderful chance to catch up with old friends,” as the narration suggests? When the going gets tough, is the elephant matriarch actually “worried she’s made a grave error”? When that leader needs to be replaced, do the other elephants genuinely wonder if “the obvious successor … has what it takes”?
Some of this creative license is par for the course, as is the fact that the three main characters are given names. (For the record, “Gaia” is the aging matriarch; “Shani” is her sister, a protective mother; and “Jomo” is the rambunctious youngster who keeps the cuteness quotient high.) The last few Disneynature movies, including the big hit “Chimpanzee,” have done the same — heck, last year’s “Penguins,” narrated by Ed Helms, was about a runty penguin named Steve and was the third highest-grossing documentary of 2019.
But in a genre that ought to be about true education under the cloak of entertainment, it also undercuts the trustworthiness of the narrative. Maybe when one elephant farted, another one really did topple to the ground in response — but maybe those two shots were unrelated and were placed back-to-back because the second makes a funny punchline to the first.
If you can’t completely trust the details of the story you’re seeing, the question becomes whether the footage itself is spectacular enough to justify the qualms you may be feeling. And on that count, “Elephant” delivers. From the dramatic overhead shots of the network of elephant trails that lead across the arid Kalahari from one water hole to another, to the remarkable footage of one elephant rescuing a baby who has become mired in the mud, to the nocturnal sights on an island of vegetation that contains the only water within 200 miles, the film supplies the kind of striking visuals that are one of the main reasons movies like this exist.
For her part, Markle doesn’t have the gravitas you’d expect from a narrator for a Disneynature film — a role that on previous films has been handled by Patrick Stewart, James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep, among others. She’s lighter, sillier at times and always conversational, which doesn’t carry much authority but fits with a film that greets a shot of elephants hitting the water hole with “It’s time for a pool party!”
Between the informal, occasionally narration and the music that mixes African vocal chants with grandiose orchestral passages, “Elephant” is a movie that would rather tell (and occasionally milk) a dramatic, crowd-pleasing story than get too serious or informational. We’re told these are “the last elephants on Earth who still have the freedom to roam,” but there are no mentions on whether climate change or deforestation or poaching is the reason why.
Of course, Disneynature is in the family-friendly entertainment game, where knowledge must be squeezed between the lines of a fun story with a whole lot of footage of cute animals. That’s what “Elephant” delivers, even with a moonlighting duchess along for the ride.