Apple TV+ film review: The Elephant Queen
James R | On 01, Nov 2019
Director: Mark Deeble, Victoria Stone
Cast: Athena, Wewe, Mimi
Watch The Elephant Queen online in the UK: Apple TV+
Read our interview with directors Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone
From Before the Flood and Our Planet to Seven Worlds One Planet and Dynasties, nature documentaries have perhaps never been so popular, thanks to a combination of justified concern about climate change and a longing for cute escapism. It’s no surprise, then, that with Apple launching its own streaming service, Apple TV+, it should have its own environmental title ready and waiting to stream.
The Elephant Queen certainly delivers on the crowd-pulling spectacle: the wildlife documentary is frequently jaw-dropping, with gorgeously captured snapshots of Kenya, from woodland and grassland to watering holes. The landscape is teaming with life, flora and fauna, lensed with a generous eye for the spectrum of colours and sizes on display – a poster child for Apple TV+’s 4K streaming quality.
Directors Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone back up that surface-level wow factor with a substantial understanding of what they’re filming; after decades of living in the East African bush, their meticulous research allows them be in place for events that only happen once a year, or once every few years, and portrait with an intimacy and proximity that counters the majestic scale.
The Elephant Queen in question is Athena, a matriarch who leads her family across the countryside to find refuge, rain and water, as the dry season arrives. It’s an epic pilgrimage that guarantees tough times and tragic loss as well as hope and determination. Things are kept largely family friendly, though, with the directors choosing to skew more Disney than David Attenborough: the elephants’ progress is narrated throughout, interpreting actions and interactions from a heavily human perspective.
It makes for a sometimes simplified, vaguely cartoonish affair, with the additional inserts of cute sidekick characters who live at a toenail height around the elephants, accompanied by lively music from Alex Heffes. The narration, fortunately, comes from Chiwetel Ejiofor, who introduces us to Athena, infant elephants Mimi and Wewe and more with deliciously velvety vocals. He recites details, names and more with the charisma of a bedtime storyteller, lending the whole thing gravitas and warmth.
Deeble and Stone, meanwhile, edit the whole thing with a fine balance of tone; even if you’re initially reticent about the film’s format, the duo find time for a genuinely moving sequence involving the bones of a former herd member; even without a more explicit discussion of how climate change impacts these animals’ lives, or how poachers are a very real threat, the movie still makes an impact.
The result is a lightweight but enjoyable nature doc that won’t be the next Blue Planet, but will engage a whole generation of young people with its accessible storytelling – and given how older generations have taken care of the planet, that’s no bad thing.
The Elephant Queen is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription. For more informaton on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.