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The Elephant Queen

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Elephant Queen Movie Poster Image
Big-hearted, beautiful docu about matriarchal elephant herd.
  • PG
  • 2019
  • 96 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Audiences will learn about "super tusker" elephants and matriarchal herds females and juveniles travel in. Documentary educates viewers about keystone species and how other animals benefit from the elephants' existence, their building the water hole. Habitats and life cycles of smaller species -- from dung beetles and frogs to birds and geese -- are also explored.

Positive Messages

The elephants exhibit a community philosophy -- "it takes a herd to raise a calf" -- that's similar to the human idea of "it takes a village to raise a child." Story shows difficulties that community leaders and heads of household face when making decisions that impact their entire family/clan/community. Perseverance and teamwork are themes.

Positive Role Models & Representations

It's hard to turn wildlife into human role models, but the elephants are incredibly empathetic. Elephant mothers are very attentive to their young. Athena is wise enough to lead her herd and balance the needs of the weakest and most fragile with survival of the herd. The female elephants all help in childcare, upbringing of juveniles and babies. They protect, provide for one another.

Violence & Scariness

One particularly sad death of an elephant baby. Her mother has lost her milk, and the baby's heart eventually gives out. The rest of the herd gathers to say goodbye. A few other dead animals are shown briefly, including some (elephant, zebra) who've died of starvation, collapsed. Also animal skeletons/bones. Athena and herd pay tribute to an elephant skull with intact tusks.

Sexy Stuff

Mating rituals of a few animals are discussed, observed, with comment about a "foam party" involving the foam tree frog, who "invites" several males to the "party" to deposit eggs into the foam nest.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Elephant Queen, narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a wildlife documentary that focuses on a herd of elephants as they make a perilous journey for food and water. Directed by award-winning filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone, the documentary has a story that's accessible and entertaining for younger viewers while still respecting the unpredictability of nature. The film doesn't shy away from the consequences of drought and starvation, and a few dead animals are shown. Especially sad are scenes that depict a baby elephant dying and the herd gathering to grieve her loss. There are also a few other shots of collapsing, dying, or dead wildlife. Mating rituals are discussed or portrayed, but the joke about a species of frog's "foam party" will go over kids' heads. What won't go over anyone's head are the movie's themes of perseverance and teamwork.

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What's the story?

THE ELEPHANT QUEEN is the result of filmmakers Mark Deeble's and Victoria Stone's (who happen to be married) spending four years filming wildlife in Kenya. Narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the movie chronicles the yearlong journey of Athena, a 50-year-old elephant matriarch who must guide her herd of females and juveniles on a perilous trek to find water. Athena is a super tusker (elephants whose tusks eventually reach the ground); her herd includes young male Wei-Wei and newborn Mimi. They must work together to dig out a waterhole before a storm; the project also helps many smaller animals (including dung beetles, geese, and frogs), which makes the elephants a "keystone species." But eventually, the green season turns dry, and scarcity forces Athena to decide whether the herd should take a dangerous 100-mile journey or stay put and risk starvation in order to give Mimi more time to grow.

Is it any good?

Gorgeously shot, fabulously narrated, and surprisingly poignant, this documentary is an inspiring tribute to the power of motherhood and community on the African savanna. Deeble, Stone, and their tight-knit crew committed four years to conceiving and shooting The Elephant Queen, with a year dedicated solely to Athena and her herd. As Athena and the younger generations of females and little ones frolic in their watering hole and live peacefully with their neighbors during green season, it seems like life is idyllic. But as the climate dries the vegetation that's their food supply, the film shows how precarious surviving can be, even for large creatures. Expect a few tear-jerking moments as baby Mimi has trouble acclimating and suffers from failure to thrive once her mother's milk dries up.

The beauty of this film is that while it concentrates on the elephant herd, it also explores all the surrounding animals that benefit from the elephants' presence -- from the tiniest of dung beetles to the cutest of Egyptian geese (one of whom, Steven, is a scene-stealing wanderer). There are also frisky foam-nest tree frogs, patient bullfrogs, and beautiful birds. Deeble's impressive cinematography is immediate and immersive, giving viewers a close-up view of the various animals and their life cycles. Ejiofor's narration proves as suited to narration as voice-over legend Morgan Freeman's; the filmmakers chose an ideal actor to voice their wildlife narrative. Families with kids of all ages will find something to love in this tender, terrific documentary.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the enduring popularity of wildlife documentaries. What's appealing about nature films? Talk about some of your favorite animal documentaries.

  • The filmmakers have discussed how The Elephant Queen explores the importance of female wisdom and leadership. How is Athena a laudable matriarch? What character strengths does she exhibit?

  • The narration gives animals names (like scientists do with animals they're tracking) and explains their behavior, but it doesn't attribute any dialogue to the animals. How does that compare to other nature movies you've seen?

  • Elephants are endangered. How does this film impact how you feel about the importance of elephants and the need for conservation?

Movie details

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