Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Movie Index


Directed by Michael Caulfield (1998, Sony Pictures Classics)
Narrated by Avery Brooks

A year on the African plains with young and old elephants, from the dry to the rainy seasons.



5 stars

September 4th, 2000 on the OmniMAX dome


Wow, I'm thoroughly impressed, and I'm still overwhelmed by these magnificent creatures.  Not to mention the quality of the film depicting them and their environs.  Wow.

I will get the only complaint out of the way very quickly, especially since it is very minor.  Whenever we saw a wide shot, showing the plains of Africa, there were never any herds visible.  It was either all grasslands, or desert, or some landscape, but there was no animal life visible at all.  A couple of them, I'm sure, could have zoomed in from a wide shot to the herds, and then cut to a close-up.  Having said that, the wide shots were completely impressive on their own, without the animals they were setting up for. 

Avery Brooks did a great job.  I knew it was him from the first words out of his mouth, but I became uncertain immediately thereafter, because I detected a tribal accent in his voice, obviously emulating the accent of an African plainsman.  He has a great voice for this sort of narration, though.  His tone and timbre were measured so exactly perfect for the various scenes.  He could really become a great voice actor.

The second thing that impressed me was the music.  It had the quality that the second album of music inspired from The Lion King had in it.  The music was native to Africa, and sounded as if it could have easily come from one of their tribes.  It was sad when it had to be, as during the drought and the death of the baby elephant, and it was energetic to the other extreme during the fights for mating rights.  There were very few minutes of screen time without the music, and I felt as if it helped draw me into the elephant encounters even more than the IMAX screen does. 

Most of all, however, I was impressed with the elephants.  We are shown these magnificent beasts up close and from far away.  We even get to see a couple of chase scenes, where the cameramen obviously got too close, and the family matriarch charged the jeep!  Now that was exciting!  The males, however, didn't seem to mind the close cameras.  They were able to get close enough to show the folds, wrinkles and hairs on the elephants' sides, feet, trunks, and most impressively, their tusks. 

The film takes place as a narration from an old elephant bull, who is telling us all about his proud family.  Indeed, the pride is evident in Brooks' voice when he tells of the new additions to the elephant family, when two babies are born, and are able to walk within an hour. 

The matriarch leads the herd from feeding ground to feeding ground, and from one to another water hole.  Food is plentiful, and the elephants are happy.  Unfortunately, the rains are late that year, and the food becomes scarce.  The herd has to move farther and farther, and the youngsters become very weak.  The herd passes another mother, mourning over her dead child. 

I remember reading somewhere about elephants being one of the most compassionate animals on Earth.  Here it showed through.  When one elephant could not get up, weak and dying, the entire family lifted the body off the ground to put it back on its feet.  Of course, when the elephant was that far gone, it slumped back to the ground again.  They tried and tried again to get the elephant to its feet, without success.  They tried to help the mother with her dead calf, too.  And they brought her comfort.  Several times, especially when times were good, the elephants snuggled together, and made what was undoubtedly a very romantic gesture between them.  They twine their trunks, and butt snouts, clinking their tusks softly.  It was wonderful. 

The battles over mating were wonderfully energetic.  The dominant male would then feel between the female's legs to see who was most fertile, and he would chase her down and mate with her.  Gestation period for elephants is a whopping 22 months!

One of the funniest scenes occurred when a male elephant slowly meandered below a tree full of roosting (and very noisy) birds.  As the bull gave a snort, the entire racket stopped, like turning a switch.  Slowly, as the birds realized that it was only an elephant, they resumed their chirping. 

In the end, of course, the rains did come to Africa that year.  Fortunately, the two toddlers survived, as did every member of the old bull's family.  They wallowed in the newly revived rivers, and ate their hearts out, basking in the mud, and playing in the water like children. 

I was amazed by the range of mannerisms the elephants could portray.  Their eyes were perpetually sad, but became even sadder when the infant died, annoyed when the calves romped into their flanks, and happy when all was going well.  The calves rubbed up against each other, sprayed everything with mud, and one almost even did a head stand. 

The scenery was beautiful, even during the drought.  The elephants were entirely majestic, and the story was perfectly put together.  The information was divulged as if from a doting grandfather, so proud of his family, with just enough given at a time.  The director and writers let it all come about naturally. 

And naturally, this was a great film.


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