BBC Video // 1993 // 362 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // April 23rd, 2008
The Elephant Walk this ain't.
My daughter loved to visit the elephants at the Birmingham Zoo. She knew their names, could tell them apart, and just liked to watch the colossal animals move around their enclosure. A lot of their popularity stems from their trunks, of course, but there's also something about their knowing gaze and their calm manner.
Over the years the BBC has produced hundreds of nature documentaries; many of its nature series have become almost legendary for their quality. Echo and Other Elephants brings together eight different documentaries, made over fifteen years, which examine various facets of these magnificent animals.
The two-disc set contains eight episodes. The first three are the Echo Trilogy, a set of documentaries from the long running BBC series The Natural World; scientist Cynthia Moss and cameraman Martyn Colbeck track the progress of a family of elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park over the course of fifteen years:
* "Echo of the Elephants" (1993) -- Covers 18 months from
* "Echo of the Elephants: The Next Generation" (1996) -- Covers four years, from 1991 to 1994
* "Echo of the Elephants: The Final Chapter?" (2005) -- Covers approximately one year (2003)
There is one standalone episode:
* "Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert" (2002)
The remaining episodes were made by researcher Saba Douglas-Hamilton. She is the daughter of a distinguished elephant researcher, and she continues her father's work, having been born and raised among elephants.
* "Living With the Elephants" (2001)
* "Namibia's Desert Giants" (2002)
* "The Search for Virgo" (2002)
* "Elephants of Samburu" (a two-part episode) (2004)
One thing that must be kept in mind is that this set does not represent a specific series; it is simply a collection of disparate documentaries on elephants. You have the Echo Trilogy, a collection of documentaries by researcher Saba Douglas-Hamilton, and finally "Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert," which rounds out the set.
The set is named for the Echo Trilogy, and it's hard to fault the decision. This is documentary as an art form. Cynthia Moss gives us a gradual introduction to the amazing familial bonds that govern elephant herds. The first installment plays the audience like a game fish, reeling us in almost immediately with the birth of an elephant, who Moss names Eli. The ante is upped when it is discovered that Eli has a problem with his front feet and can't extend them fully. He's forced to, in effect, walk on his knuckles; if he doesn't overcome this problem, he will have little chance of surviving. So now we're faced with a ridiculously cute baby elephant in peril. Next we see the way in which Eli's family protects and encourages him, and we suddenly realize that there is more than simple instinct at work here. This is a family, not a herd, and they act like a family; the younger females cooperate to take care of the young, the adults defer to Echo, the matriarch.
The story is enhanced by an exquisite sense of the theatrical. After a while, we're become accustomed to the size of the elephants, and we accept Echo, the family matriarch, as the baseline for a large female. And then Dionysus, a truly colossal bull elephant walks into the frame, towering over Echo, and your jaw drops. It doesn't hurt that the camerawork for these three episodes is stunning on all levels. I've no proof, but given the level of detail present, I suspect that the cameras were run at a higher frame per second than normal. In any event, the video for all three episodes is flawless.
The other episodes all have something to commend them. The four episodes from Saba Douglas-Hamilton provide much greater breadth; more attention is spent on other animals and on the elephants' relationship with human civilization. The "Searching for Virgo" episode, in which Douglas-Hamilton attempts to find a female elephant who befriended her father many years ago is particularly poignant, as much of the episode takes place in the shadow of the massive ivory hunts that almost wiped out the species in the 1970s. The video quality for these episodes varies from OK to very good; the last episode, "Elephants of Samburu," appears to have been shot on digital video. There's even some nice dovetailing between episodes; one of the stories in "Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert" involves an elephant calf whose mother dies. Normally, when this happens, the calf ends up dying as well, because of the lack of nutrition (elephants nurse for their first four years). In this case, though, the calf is "adopted" by one of the other females in the herd. On the other hand, "Elephants of the Samburu" features an orphaned calf who won't be accepted by any of the other females. Furthermore, the little tyke has to face several serious obstacles, such as crossing a river, that the mother would ordinarily assist the calf in clearing. Ultimately, the decision is made to remove the calf from the herd and raise it in an elephant orphanage, to be eventually returned to the wild.
As noted earlier, video quality varies from stunning to just pretty good. Audio quality is more consistent, and is pretty good as well, though there's not a lot to really challenge a sound system.
There are no extras; I would have thought that they would have at least added links to the more prominent elephant research foundations-a link to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, which sponsors Cynthia Moss' work, is included in the Accomplices section.
Parents should view the set before showing it to younger children. While The Lion King may have softened blow in discovering the harsher realities of life in the wild, it still glossed over the birds and the bees, and the Echo Trilogy in particular leaves little to the imagination on that front. Let's just say that John Holmes would have wept with envy, and leave it at that.
If you are at all interested in elephants, you owe it to yourself to get this set.
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (3 Episodes)
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 362 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: The Natural World
* Elephant Nomads
* Amboseli Trust for Elephants