‘The Elephant Queen’ Review: Magnificent Images of Majestic Animals


Ken Jaworowski, The New York Times

Date Published

See link for photos and film trailer.

The Elephant Queen

Gentle and hopeful, “The Elephant Queen” sometimes shies away from tough truths. But this documentary aims to celebrate these creatures rather than stir rage over their peril. Considering its intended young audience, that’s a smart strategy.

Narrated by the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and directed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone, “Queen” centers on Athena, the leader of an extended family of wild elephants that roam the Kenyan savanna. In footage shot over several years, we watch the herd congregate at its watering hole, raise its offspring and, during a drought, travel long distances to find a new water source.

Time and again we’re shown how curious and perceptive elephants are. (One scene, where the herd seemingly recognizes the bones of a dead member and stops to mourn the animal, is breathtaking.) Other species are also observed: The life cycles of birds, reptiles and insects intertwine with those of the elephants, and are just as fascinating.

Deeble’s script spotlights a few daily dramas to raise a bit of tension and humor, and his cinematography is magnificent. Yet the film’s omissions can be glaring — climate change is affecting these animals but is never mentioned. Similarly, rampant poaching kills tens of thousands of elephants every year; if this insanity doesn’t stop, extinction is assured. Only at the very end is the slaughter mentioned, almost in passing.

Young viewers could certainly handle a few more harsh facts. Yet “The Elephant Queen” sets out, first and foremost, to use a narrative to build compassion. And here, a good story is as effective as a shout.

The Elephant Queen
–NYT Critic’s Pick
–Directed by Mark Deeble, Victoria Stone
–Documentary, Family
–1h 36m