A very Disney documentary about migrating elephants with storybook charm and the ironic aural pleasures of Meghan Markle.
It’s so very, very Disney that their new Disneynature documentary Elephant – streaming now on Disney+, and I’ve written Disney so many times in this sentence it’s meaningless to me – is warmly narrated by a literal princess. Yes, Meghan Markle, officially billed as Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in a lovely little marketing middle finger, tells the story of a herd of elephants making their way from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River, having presumably found a spare moment between marrying the only acceptable ginger bachelor on planet Earth and being savaged in the UK press for doing so. Only joking, obviously – British tabloids don’t hate Meghan for marrying Prince Harry, but for having the temerity to do so whilst being black.
This is all getting rather political, isn’t it? Not to worry, let’s talk about elephants instead. Elephants are an easy sell for a burgeoning streaming service, given they’re somehow both majestic and cartoonishly dopey, with big, expressive faces and flappy ears and funny trunks. Apple TV+ had the same idea with The Elephant Queen, which I said at the time felt a lot like a Disney movie anyway. Now we have the real thing, and it’s a charming, cutesy, proudly unscientific tale for which Meghan’s playful delivery is a perfect fit.
Elephant is directed by Mark Linfield, Alastair Fothergill, and Vanessa Berlowitz, and is the kind of documentary that wants you to understand that annual migrations for precious water are hard but that these heavily anthropomorphized creatures, led by Jomo, son of Shani, are more than up to the task. (Yes, of course they named them.) It’s a fine line to tread, halfway between cloying claptrap and a serious emotional journey, but for the most part, Elephant sticks with the right tone. This isn’t an eye-opening zoological examination of complex animal behaviors, it’s an adventure movie explicitly edited and presented for children who just want to see cool elephants.
And you can see that kiddie focus everywhere, particularly in the narration, and the way the footage has been strung together to evoke the kind of silly family-friendly shenanigans that Disney specializes in. The seams are always visible, and anyone expecting a serious nature documentary will probably be a bit annoyed by them, eager to argue that it’s an important lesson for kids to see dehydrated elephants collapse and die and be eaten by scavengers. That may be so, but it has no place in a feature that sees the inherent comedy of an elephant farting, among other such moments of childish glee.
Everything beyond the innate appeal of elephants is a bonus. For adults like me, the ironic charm of hearing Meghan Markle make cheery banter about matriarchs and lines of dynastic succession is reason enough to watch, but credit must be given where it’s due, and Elephant captures nature in the way that one imagines only a Disney-backed production could. How much money had to change hands to secure this kind of access to breath-taking locations and their charming inhabitants? A documentary about that would be great, not that you’d ever find such a thing on Disney+, a storybook land of talking animals, superheroes, galaxies far, far away, and now Royal apostates. Oh, and elephants. Mustn’t forget those.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.