A scene from "The Elephant Queen"

Sundance ’19 Review: Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone’s “The Elephant Queen” Leaves Quite an Impression

“In elephant society, aggression is rare,” Chiwetel Ejiofor says at a certain point in “The Elephant Queen,” suggesting that there might not be much drama in Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone’s nature doc, but that assumption would be wrong. Although the excursion to Kenya’s Tsavo region to track the migration of a herd of elephants over the course of a year is breathtakingly beautiful with Ejiofor’s own dulcet narration adding to a sense of a genteel travelogue, it is how elegantly “The Elephant Queen” handles telling a story about the full circle of life in a sensitive and compelling way for all audiences, chronicling the potentially devastating effects of a drought on an entire ecosystem.

The film’s title may allude to Athena, the regal tusker that’s in charge of keeping her herd in check, but Deeble and Stone broaden their lens to every species that gathers around a watering hole that has been filled by recent storms, gracefully outline an entire community that ranges from Athena’s herd that includes her one-year-old daughter named Princess, a “naughty boy” Weiwei and Marla, a peer of Athena’s, who recently gave birth to a daughter named Mimi, to the minuscule killifish that make a home out of the muddy water. A cheeky sense of humor enlivens the film as the filmmakers slyly compare the procreation activities of the foam frogs that attach themselves to tree branches to after hours activity at Studio 54 with a choice disco cue from Alex Heffes’ playful score and observe the Egyptian geese nudging their kids out of the nest, concentrating in particular on Steven, a wayward gosling that can frequently be seen running behind the rest of the gaggle.

The often intimate cinematography that allows for the animals’ personalities to organically emerge is impressive enough, but how Deeble and Stone are able to create an engaging narrative through illustrating the impact that one species has on another is what makes “The Elephant Queen” special, especially when such a fraught forecast lies ahead. Athena seeks to lead the herd to a sustainable source of water some 100 miles away from their current location, but hangs back to see whether Mimi, who has looked fatigued ever since leaving the womb, can make the journey and it’s a decision with ramifications that ripple through the whole animal kingdom, affecting how much is consumed in preparation for a long winter and whether the necessary travel will be made in vain.

While “The Elephant Queen” is family friendly, it sets up real stakes and the filmmakers take great care in conveying hardship once it hits, ably balancing the exuberant moments from the circle of life with capturing its less savory aspects. In keeping to the animals’ purview, left unspoken but always looming is the spectre that their plight is tied to weather that is growing ever more unpredictable as climate change takes hold and Deeble and Stone do well to allow images of the cracked, parched land the elephants cross to speak volumes about the ingenuity required on an annual basis to survive and the growing threat that as wise and wily as the animals can be, they’re competing with forces of nature that may be increasingly insurmountable. Still, the film is first and foremost a celebration of how miraculous it is that the elephants, the geese, the frogs and even the dung beetles all can coexist and subsist in the first place and in distilling this fragile yet complex ecological community into its purest form, the lessons it has for the larger world are profound.

“The Elephant Queen” will be distributed by Apple later this year.