Among Apple TV+’s new scripted series debuting for its launch is one film: The Elephant Queen, a nature documentary directed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone. Filmed over the course of four years, The Elephant Queen follows revered matriarch Athena and the herd she shepherds across the unforgiving terrain in search of food and water.
Like any nature doc worth its salt, the film is a gorgeous visual journey through what have come to be perilous times for the world’s charismatic megafauna, something never made explicit in the script narrated by a staid Chiwetel Ejiofor. Unsure whether it wants to be more Planet Earth or pure Disney fare, The Elephant Queen’s message is mixed as it chronicles Athena’s long journey. Early on, Alex Heffes’ whimsical score delights alongside footage of creatures found “a toenail height” to the elephants, including a particularly frightened frog whose pond the herd start stomping around in. But there is also an extremely difficult sequence not too much later that more cooly details the death of the herd’s youngest member from starvation.
The causes behind these changes are ones that were laid bare in the Netflix documentary series Our Planet, from the producers of Planet Earth. In one segment, we see an elephant herd much like Athena’s whose ancient routes from watering hole to watering hole are being disturbed by rapid climate change. And while animals can adapt to these changes to some extent, the point that was drilled in was that major changes are sometimes happening within a single generation, one ill-equipped to suddenly find alternate options through hundreds of miles of savannah and badlands.
Despite this cloud of peril, The Elephant Queen is mild edutainment ostensibly geared towards children—the only child-friendly production in Apple TV+’s inaugural bunch—but it was a difficult and emotional watch even for this adult. (The documentary also features an inordinate amount of close-up moments inspecting the mating of the smaller flora and fauna around the elephants, including a lingering shot of what can only be described as a straining turtle’s O-face). That, and the fact that it leaves behind any larger consideration or commentary of the world outside of the elephants’ immediate periphery makes one wonder who, exactly, the intended audience for the film really is. What starts as a light-hearted romp turns into a parade of death followed by a final, triumphant moment that feels a little hollow given the lack of overarching context. Nature is harsh and the cycle of life is a reality we cannot escape, but the decision to completely ignore unnatural environmental factors is a huge missed opportunity (especially since the documentary ends with the acknowledgement that one elephant we meet has disappeared, and another massive “tusker” was killed by poachers during filming).
When The Elephant Queen shines though, it does so beautifully. There is a wonderfully dynamic shot of a dung beetle navigating the herd set to a rousing score, though liberties are further taken when fight sounds are added in to a set of dung beetles squaring off. The action-oriented editing in these moments is fun, as are silly scenes like when a rambunctious elephant calf called Wewe gets kicked at for being annoying. But The Elephant Queen also includes plenty of heartfelt interactions, like between Wewe and his baby friend Mimi, and later when the herd silently visit the bones of their dead family members, each touching a skull and paying homage to the fallen. It’s incredible, and all the more unfortunate that the documentary never quite finds the right balance to tell the stories created from its outstanding footage.
The Elephant Queen is messy, but it’s still a worthwhile nature watch that educates viewers on how important elephants are to the biomes across which they traverse and why. The documentary struggles to narratively incorporate a gaggle other creatures encountered throughout, be they avian or amphibian, although just meeting these beings and learning a little more about their own life cycles is justification enough for their inclusion. There is a rawness and a beauty to the production that should be appreciated even through some of its more questionable choices. Because when there is a call to action at the very end of the film, I was ready to answer it. Sharing this story is one way to help Queen Athena protect her herd.
Directors: Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone
Writers: Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone
Narrator: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Release Date: November 1, 2019
Check out our reviews of the rest of Apple TV+’s inaugural programs below:
For All Mankind
The Morning Show
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV