Elephant review: Meghan Markle fits perfectly into the world of Disney+

Clarisse Loughrey

Dir: Mark Linfield, Vanessa Berlowitz, and Alastair Fothergill. Narrated by: Meghan Markle. 86 mins

Meghan Markle has swapped the royal tiara for a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. The actor, activist, and real-life fairytale princess – here credited as the Duchess of Sussex – narrates one of two new Disneynature documentaries released on Disney+ this week (the other, Dolphin Reef, is headlined by Natalie Portman). Elephant is Markle’s first screen credit since she and Prince Harry announced they’d be stepping down from their duties, though she still acts here with regal courteousness. Her only fee for the voiceover, recorded last year, was a donation to the Elephants Without Borders charity.

It’s an impressive feat of adaptability. Markle slips easily into the “Disney voice” – steady, bright and clear. She sounds just as likely to ask you to keep your hands, arms, and legs inside the vehicle than narrate the comings and goings of pachyderms. “It’s time for a pool party!” she chimes, as the herd storm towards a watering hole. When one of them farts, she responds with a musical laugh. “Uh! Who did that?” she adds in mock censure.

But she’s sincere, too – respectful of the elephant’s role in the animal kingdom as wrinkled sages. They may be graceless. Their drooping ears may seem like nature’s cruel joke. But those small, amber-coloured eyes never fail to look ancient and soulful. Elephant plays up this idea to a near-spiritual degree. Markle’s narration speaks of their “deep connection to their past” and an “unbroken chain of knowledge”. When the herd’s leader is forced to make a life-or-death decision, the film suddenly plunges into a frenetically edited, hallucinogenic montage that’s meant to replicate a call to the ancestors. We’re mere moments away from a full rendition of “He Lives in You”.

Elephant certainly wants to be some kind of reality show Lion King. The documentary follows a 40-year-old female elephant, christened Shani, who’s set to inherit the role of leader and matriarch of the herd from her older sister Gaia. But at the moment, she’s busy raising her mischievous son Jommo, who needs guidance and protection on his very first migration. Every year, the Okavango Delta in Botswana fills with water and transforms into a paradisiacal oasis. But it dries up just as quickly, forcing the elephants to cross the Kalahari desert in order to reach the Zambezi River.

The route is a perilous one. A particularly distressing sequence sees Shani rescue a calf who’s started to drown in the mud. At other points, they’re attacked by lions and beset by salt tornadoes. They battle extreme hunger and thirst. But this a Disney documentary, and so anthropomorphisation is rampant. We see Shani reconnect with a long-lost cousin and tenderly prod at a sun-bleached elephant jawbone. Markle’s narration insists that she can recognise who these bones once belonged to. Elephants may never forget, but forensic experts they are not. The artistic license can, at times, be quite entertaining. Jommo loves to chase around the birds and warthogs, but Markle points out that there’s one animal that won’t be trifled with. Cut to a water buffalo with a perfect deadpan. Then a shot of a laughing zebra. The animals are natural comedians.

Directors Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield and Vanessa Berlowitz are all veterans of the BBC’s Planet Earth series, so they’re well-versed in the mix of intimacy and grandeur that’s become the de facto style for nature documentaries. And there are moments of beauty here: Carmine Bee-Eater birds erupt into the sky in a flurry of jewel colours; Mopane Worms form a writhing carpet in the desert. Though Elephant’s narrative fakery is unlikely to please acolytes of David Attenborough, it’s still a small thing of beauty – brought to us by a studio that’s always treasured fantasy above reality.

Elephant will be available to stream on Disney+ on 3 April

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