The Elephant Queen is undeniably gorgeous and contains some of the most moving sequences of the year, but it also frequently resorts to cutesy audience manipulation.
The Elephant Queen (Apple TV+) is a nature documentary, shot across four years in Kenya by seasoned filmmakers, and depicting an authentic story of African wildlife driven to desperation by climate change. It’s also the story of 50-year-old herd matriarch Athena and her children, which taps into our innate desire to anthropomorphize animals and occasionally manipulates our affection for them with cutesy, family-friendly flourishes. The ironic drawback of Apple TV+’s exclusive nature feature is that it all too often feels a bit like a Disney movie.
The action is mellifluously narrated by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose tone suits the long and arduous journey of Athena and her herd across the savannah in search of water. The home they’re leaving — full of diverse and adorable species, many of which are improbably named — has the distinct feeling of the nature you see drawn and colored in animated movies and is populated by the same kind of frolicking personalities. The drama seems designed, which I suppose is a testament to the power of the natural world, just as long as you remember that what you’re watching is indeed natural and not a fiction, which sometimes you won’t.
When it wants to take things seriously, The Elephant Queen contains some extraordinarily moving and impressive sequences — some of the most powerful of the year, emotionally, and perhaps of several years, formally. The disconcerting whiplash between lighthearted animal fun and devastating tragedy can be difficult to adjust to, but once you’re in the right headspace, Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone’s film has considerable power. A coda suggesting more tragic happenings after the story’s conclusion feels like part of the truer, sadder, more lasting film this one might have been were it harsher and more truthful rather than compassionate. But it tells a fun story about elephants. We can always use more of those.