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Review: 'The Elephant Queen' on Apple TV+ is absolutely stunning

The Elephant Queen

4.5 / 5

Last updated

"The Elephant Queen," the first movie of the Apple TV+ era, is a gorgeous, eye-opening nature documentary that begs to be watched on the largest screen possible.

The Elephant Queen was directed by Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble, with Deeble serving as director of photography. The duo has been working and filming in Africa for three decades — and it shows.

The 90-minute film tells the story of Athena, the 50-year-old queen of an elephant herd, and also follows various other animals peripheral to the herd. The film was shot over the course of several years, mostly in Kenya.

The film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 and also showed at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and will arrive on Apple TV+ at its launch on November 1, after a brief theatrical release.

Apple, which did not have anything to do with the film's production, reached a deal last October to distribute the film worldwide. It was Apple's first such deal for a film, and came before the company announced its deal with A24 the following month.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor best known for 12 Years a Slave, serves as narrator. There's also a score by composer Alex Heffes that seems to owe a lot to musical influence of The Lion King — the recent remake of which Ejiofor co-starred in.

Eye to eye with the animals

The Elephant Queen owes a debt to March of the Penguins and other nature docs that have come before, especially those produced by National Geographic. The modern influence of Planet Earth can be seen as well. On its own, the film is absolutely astounding visually, getting up close and personal with the elephants, giraffes and beetles and, at one point, getting an incredible shot next to a flying bird.

If you thought Apple TV+ was avoiding violence and sexuality, The Elephant Queen has both, albeit within the confines of the animal kingdom. You've never seen on-screen frogs quite like this.

Things get sad, when a young elephant dies, and we see the elaborate grieving processes of elephants.

But they also get very funny. There's a moment in The Elephant Queen in which one of the elephants defecates, and the footage of a dung beetle flying over towards it is scored with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," in a screamingly hilarious homage to the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now. That beetle carrying the dropping ends up as a thread for the remainder of the film.

Throughout, there are some absolutely breathtaking visuals. You want to watch this on an Apple TV 4K on the biggest screen you can muster, rather than on your iPhone or iPad.

From the elephant's mouth

The Elephant Queen will appeal to animal buffs, those who love nature documentaries, first and foremost, as well as those who enjoy the dulcet tones of Mr. Ejiofor.

Thanks to that brief theatrical release, the film will be eligible for the Best Documentary Oscar, which would be Apple's first. This could vindicate the prediction by Gene Munster in 2017, long before Apple TV+ was announced, that Apple would win an Oscar within five years.

Based on the production quality on display, that wouldn't surprise us.