There is something elemental about “Elephant,” the new Disneynature’s new documentary premiering this week on Disney+. Narrated by Meghan Markle (billed as Meghan the Duchess of Sussex), who donated her fee to the Elephants Without Borders conservation charity in Botswana, the doc is a story about an unbroken chain of knowledge stretching back for millennia and an elephant’s ability to connect to its community and ancestors, wrapped up in Disneynature’s slick presentation.
The film focusses on 50-year-old matriarch Gaia, her younger sister and heir apparent Shani, baby nephew Jomo, and their migration, with their herd, across hundreds of miles across the vast Kalahari Desert in search of water at the Zambezi and Victoria Falls. It is an epic journey, a quest their ancestors have taken for thousands of years. The key to the trip’s success is Gaia’s elephant memory, an instinct that will point them in the right direction, from watering hole to watering hole until they reach their destination. As well as leading the herd, Gaia, we’re told, senses the presence of water through her feet.
The film’s drama comes in several forms. First are the natural problems, like persistent predators i.e. lions and hungry crocodiles, Gaia’s rescue of a drowning calf and a lack of water. On an interpersonal level, Gaia’s health is at risk. She is on her sixth and final set of teeth are worn and it is difficult for her to eat and she is fading.
Like all the Disneynature docs Gaia, Shani and Jomo are anthropomorphized. They don’t speak à la “The Lion King” but Markle’s narration often puts words and thoughts into their heads that forward the story but sometimes step over the line of documentary and into the world of speculation. For instance, when Markle suggests “Gaia remembers these birds leading her mother to the water,” it feels unnecessary. There is enough drama with predators and rival elephant herds without amping up the experience with supposition.
That aside, “Elephant” directors Mark Linfield, Vanessa Berlowitz and Alastair Fothergill do a wonderful job of allowing the visuals to tell the tale. Beautiful aerial shots and on-the-ground photography is both sweeping and intimate, providing an exciting, if deliberately paced, glimpse into a little seen world.