In Botswana’s Okavango Delta, an adorable baby elephant is trapped in a thick muddy quagmire and is in danger of suffocating.
The matriarch of the herd wades into the muck and gets the bull’s head above the mud, allowing him to breathe. But the little guy is still hopelessly stuck, so the matriarch keeps digging and digging until she clears a path for the calf to wriggle free and re-join the herd.
If that scene from the breathtaking Disney+ documentary “Elephant” doesn’t make your heart skip a beat, you might want to check to make sure your heart is still working. Director Mark Linfield and co-directors Vanessa Berlowitz and Alastair Fothergill have fashioned a fascinating chronicle of an elephant herd’s thousand-mile round-trip journey from the delta during dry season to the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River.
In one typically gorgeous sequence, the magnificent elephants are framed against an orange-gold sun as they make their way. A giraffe going in the opposite direction passes. It’s like we’re watching nature’s unique rush hour. This is a decidedly Disney-fied production, from the soundtrack strongly reminiscent of music from “The Lion King” to the filmmakers assigning names to the three lead elephant “characters” to the narration from one Meghan Markle, the actress (“Suits”) who has returned to work after a hiatus from showbiz in which she married some fellow named Harry and lived in England.
“For elephants, family is EVERYTHING,” says Markle, sounding for all the world like a preschool teacher reading to her class. But it’s actually a suitable approach for the material, as this is arguably the gentlest, sweetest, most family-friendly look at elephants ever filmed. (Note: The Duchess of Sussex donated her fee to Elephants Without Borders in Botswana.)
The camerawork in “Elephant” is remarkable, from closeup shots zooming in on the eyes of Gaia, the matriarch of the family, to drone-type long-shots capturing the vast and timeless landscape of Southern Africa. Time and again, Markle’s narration supports the visuals showing us how family really is everything, from the adults nurturing 1-year-old Jomo to the somber moment when the herd comes across the skull and bones of an elephant and pauses in mourning. Gaia even picks up a bone with her trunk and hands it to Jomo, as if to convey the respect and reverence the herd feels for one of its fallen.
On the lighter side, you’ll marvel at the sight of a bull elephant standing up on its hindquarters and pointing its trunk straight up to shake loose some tasty pods from a tree. If you saw that move in a photo-realism fictional movie, you’d chalk it up to poetic license.
“Elephant” occasionally takes a little poetic license of its own, as when Markle describes Gaia’s all-encompassing memory banks and we see rapid-fire footage of images from her past. It’s as if she’s a cyborg in a “Terminator” movie. On another occasion, Markle says, “Shawni reconnects with a cousin she hasn’t seen in ages.” Wait, how do we know it’s her cousin, and how do we know they haven’t seen each other in ages? It’s not like they have Facebook accounts.
No matter. We forgive “Elephant” its conceits because it’s such a joy to observe the rituals of these incredible, amazing creatures.