Artisan // 1997 // 40 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // July 30th, 2001
Thundering from the giant screen! The safari of a lifetime! Feel the thundering herd!
I have been fascinated with elephants since I was very young. Before I had even started school my parents had started me collecting every sort of elephant-themed knicknack, figurine, and statuette imaginable. I remember well the days spent as a child checking out every book on elephants in our local public library. While my ardor has cooled a bit, I have continued to collect elephant-related items, and deep down I still think they are fascinating. Noble and majestic to be sure, but more than that just plain cool. So, it was a special treat for me when this DVD showed up on my doorstep.
Africa's Elephant Kingdom tells the story of a year in the life of Dionysus, a very old bull elephant. Voiced by Avery Brooks ("Spenser for Hire," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"), Dionysus serves as our narrator and guide into the elephant kingdom. The kingdom in question is Kenya's Ambicelli National Park, in the very shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The mountain is ever-present on the horizon, looking over the plains below like a guardian. Here in the swamps and grasslands the elephants lead a nomadic existence, constantly seeking vegetation to eat.
As we follow the elephants, their close knit family structure soon becomes apparent. Elephants live and travel in extended family groups, each headed by a wise old matriarch. The matriarch of the group we are following is a cousin to Dionysus, and is called Torn Ear due to battle scars she proudly displays. As we follow her family group we see all of the trials of elephant life, from birth to death.
Africa's Elephant Kingdom was originally shot for the IMAX mega-screen format. In order to maintain picture quality and color and minimize grain when the image is projected onto such a huge screen, IMAX films are shot on 70mm film stock, which is run through a camera sideways. As a result, each frame of film has approximately 30 times the area of a normal 35mm frame. This in turn means that the detail and color resolution of an IMAX film is far superior to even the highest quality standard film. When watching Africa's Elephant Kingdom on DVD, on the television in my living room, the advantage in picture quality is clear. The image is crystal clear, like looking out a window onto the African landscape. We see every leaf, every blade of grass, every ripple in a pond. The picture has an almost unreal clarity; one gets the feeling that images this sharp and colorful must be CGI, but they are not.
Not only is the picture great, but the things that have been captured on film for us to see are fascinating. We get a very close look at these elephants, including close-ups of their skin, eyes, ears, and trunks. We witness combat between two males sparring over a mate, and the sight of these two massive animals hurtling themselves at each other is amazing. We also see some incredible footage of an elephant charging directly at the camera, chasing after it as it pulls away. This shot in particular must have been incredible to see on the IMAX screen; in the documentary featurette we learn that the film crew was put in considerable danger to get it.
The sound is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and complements the image well. The surround channels are put to excellent use and create and enveloping sound environment incorporating directional effects and the musical score. The sound mix is very well balanced, for even with all the great sound effects Brooks's narration comes through clearly and is easily understood.
While the exciting moments such as these demonstrate the capabilities of the format, the quieter moments show the filmmaking skill of writer/director Michael Caulfield. In a mere 40 minutes of screen time he manages to show us the real life of these elephants. He is able to make us relate to the elephants, to see them as creatures with almost human characteristics and emotions. I was amazed at some of the things elephants do, such as a group of strangers coming by to comfort a mother who had lost a young calf.
Finally, while the elephants are the real stars of the film, Avery Brooks gives Dionysus a real life and personality. His voice performance is very good, with deep, commanding yet mellow tones. He avoids the usual over- or under-acting pitfalls that many actors fall into when doing voice work or animation.
The extra content provided on the disc is comprised of a theatrical trailer, a web link to the Discovery Channel, and a documentary, "The Making of Africa's Elephant Kingdom." The trailer is of course full-screen, and is of high quality, comparable to the film itself. It runs for about two minutes, and appears to include some footage that did not make final cut.
The real treat, however, is the "Making Of" documentary. This feature runs for a full 52 minutes; the film itself is only about 40 minutes long. I found it just as fascinating as the feature presentation, if not more so. The behind-the-scenes footage is great, and shows the lengths these filmmakers went to in order to get some of the more remarkable shots. Here we learn just how much danger they were in when filming an elephant charge. We also learn about some of the shots that got away, due to the technical limitations of the IMAX equipment in the field. We see the crew's life in camp as well, their entertainments and diversions, and the resources they had available to communicate with the outside world. There were some hair-raising experiences during the making of Africa's Elephant Kingdom, including a camera crew that was held up at gunpoint by Somali bandits looking for money. There are also humorous anecdotes, such as the hyenas that kept eating parts of the airplane used for spotting elephants. At the end of the feature, Caulfield comments that "The experience of this film in an IMAX cinema is going to be breathtaking." I agree, and I wish I could have seen it that way.
I don't have any complaints, but there is one nagging question that has been bothering me about this movie. I know that elephants have a very close-knit family and social structure, and I know they are considered to be fairly intelligent animals. At times, though, I wonder if the elephants as presented aren't excessively anthropomorphized. I wonder if the emotional reactions and personalities we see aren't a result of our own projection, interpreting elephant behavior through a human eye. This perception is reinforced by the use of an actor speaking from the perspective of an elephant. Make no mistake, I enjoyed the film very much, but I do wonder at times about the human tendency to project and anthropomorphize and whether these tendencies affected what we are presented with on the screen.
This is a fascinating look at elephants and their world, and I recommend it highly. Parents especially may want to enjoy it with their children, as it is fun and educational at the same time. I know I would most likely have worn the disc out if I had owned it when I was a kid.
Everyone involved is completely acquitted and released with the thanks of the court.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 40 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* The Making of Africa's Elephant Kingdom
* Discovery Channel