Apple TV+’s ‘The Elephant Queen’ shies away from hard truths

The documentary captures life in an elephant herd but largely avoids threats the animals face

Athena the elephant

Athena, the 50-year-old matriarch of a herd of African elephants, is the subject of a new nature documentary streaming on Apple TV+.

Courtesy of Apple

A stirring scene in The Elephant Queen shows a herd of African elephants encountering an elephant’s remains on the barren savanna. Slowly, the elephants extend their trunks to gently touch the skull, lingering on its grooves as though they remember, and mourn, the elephant that was. It’s one of the film’s many intimate glimpses into the lives of elephants.

The family-friendly documentary debuts November 1 on the new streaming service Apple TV+. The Elephant Queen shies away from the larger forces — climate change, habitat loss and poaching — that threaten the subjects it beautifully portrays. But if you can look past that, and the sometimes-cheesy soundtrack and over-the-top narration, you’re left with an enjoyable film that generates compassion for these gentle giants.

The film, narrated by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, centers on Athena, a 50-year-old matriarch, as she leads her herd across the Kenyan savanna. The local focus of the documentary is refreshing compared with the sweeping purview of series like Planet Earth. We meet the clan during good times, while the elephants play at a verdant water hole among the frogs, birds, insects and fish that also live there. The film benefits from this wider perspective. One memorable scene provides up-close detail of a totally bizarre behavior. On a slim branch overhanging the water hole, a dozen male foam-nest tree frogs clamor around a single female, whipping up a large, white foam mass into which the female lays eggs. Four days later, tadpoles drop from the foam into the water, only to get gobbled up by terrapins.

Kenya savanna watering hole
African elephants, zebras and a giraffe gather to drink at a watering hole on the Kenyan savanna in The Elephant Queen.Courtesy of Apple

Such natural history nuggets, unfortunately, are sometimes offset by a cartoonish portrayal. Dung beetles take flight to the “Ride of the Valkyries,” and then a fight over a ball of dung gets exaggerated with fake punching and squeaking noises straight out of a comic book movie. Additionally, the documentary sometimes goes overboard with heavy-handed narration. For instance, the film opens with Ejiofor saying, “Oh wise and gentle soul, do you remember when we had it all? Do you dream of when we had to leave?”

The elephants are forced to leave as the water dries up due to an especially trying drought. The herd sets off on a 100-mile trek to a permanent water source, and Mimi, a newborn elephant, begins to struggle. As leader, Athena must balance the needs of the weakest against the whole herd, the film suggests. Scientifically, there’s support for her singular role in decision making, but viewers looking to learn about the intricacies of elephant society won’t find such detail here. Aside from some interesting tidbits — such as how killifish eggs get transported between ephemeral water holes by hitchhiking on mud-caked elephants — don’t expect to learn many new facts.

The film finds its footing as it progresses, quieting down the narration and soundtrack to just let the elephants be. When a young elephant dies and the herd mourns the loss, the filmmakers get out of the way and the moment speaks for itself. It’s a deeply moving reminder that other branches of the tree of life experience something like love and loss (SN: 2/26/19).

It’s a shame the film doesn’t leverage the affection and understanding it builds to shine a light on the ways in which humans endanger elephants and the creatures that depend on them. Aside from a brief nod to poaching just before the credits roll, the film ignores the existential threat human activity poses to these animals. The drought that spurs Athena and her family to move will likely become much more common with climate change.

Watch a trailer for The Elephant Queen.

Jonathan Lambert is the staff writer for biological sciences, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

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