TIFF Review: ‘The Elephant Queen’

Cute elephant doc feels neutered

4 mins read

The Elephant Queen
(UK/Kenya, 96 min.)
Dir. Victoria Stone, Mark Deeble
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

In The Elephant Queen, we find a family of elephants lead by powerful matriarch Athena. The titular queen, responsible for the well-being of her herd (especially the newborns), we watch as Athena shelters her family from a drought. An educational documentary, Elephant Queen nevertheless creates plot, drama, and warmth in its depiction of its subjects.

Athena is a kind and caring ruler who will do anything to protect and guide her family. With Mimi, the youngest addition to the herd, they begin their life at a watering hole. The elephants work together to raise their children, who are taught as much about survival as life’s simple pleasures. In cute vignettes we also experience the nature around Athena’s clan: a dung beetle is persistently protective of his prize, or a gosling (named Steven) gets lost on small adventures, all around the watering holes which depend on the elephants for life.

Though lighthearted, The Elephant Queen is not without hardship. As the watering hole dries up, Athena must lead her herd through the parched savannah to find a new oasis. The trek is a difficult one, and Mimi, in a heartbreaking scene, does not make it. Demonstrating the animals’ grief, the elephants’ story is one of highs and lows.

But despite this narrative arc showing both the joys and hardships of herd life, The Elephant Queen is so kid-friendly it feels neutered. Mating in other animals (toads, frogs, turtles, and fish) is largely made into a joke, edited to focus on jilted movements (a single thrust, a gaping mouth). The food chain is likewise comedic. When fish eat tadpoles, or when frogs eat each other, we are distanced enough from the prey, and are able to simply laugh at slapstick jokes about special snacks or family feuds which result in, ultimately, animals being eaten alive. The documentary puts great efforts into not affording these prey the anthropomorphization which might render them cute and human, and worth our empathy. But it is questionable if this removal of the visceral from sex and death is actually productive. While nature is sanitized, a clear message is given on what animals are worth our care and attention.

Similarly, we find Athena’s herd mainly unscathed by outside influences. While Mimi dies, it is a natural fluke (a result of her health and her mother not producing enough milk). But drought, to say nothing of predators or poachers, never infringe upon the elephants — until the film’s epilogue. Here, we find that Athena’s herd has gone missing, while Satao, another elephant leader and a benevolent figure of kindness and protection, has been killed for his ivory. This shocking end adds gravity to the film. We become comfortable within the herbivorous realm and are inspired, at the end, to protect what we have seen. But this end is also too abrupt. The misrepresentation creates a fantasy of what we must protect, but it also gives space to avoid confronting reality. While The Elephant Queen does engage with the violent aspects of life, it is too selective. The documentary is without a doubt charming, but it is also too innocuous for its subject matter

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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