Apple TV+: The Elephant Queen (2019) - Reviewed

In an unusual move for film production and distribution company A24, the studio paired up with nature documentary filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble and with their production company created the documentary feature film The Elephant Queen.  Given a limited theatrical run in October 2019, a month later the film landed exclusive distribution through the streaming service Apple TV+. 

While the concept of films being tied to exclusive online distribution isn’t anything new, for the new Apple TV+ application this is among the very first feature length films to go on the platform.  Having recently done a trial run of the service, yours truly took a good look at what is ostensibly one of the first cinematic offerings the streaming service offered to consumers.

Narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor and aided by stunning nature photography, the film concerns matriarch elephant Athena and her herd of elephants she tries to protect as they leave their waterhole behind.  Following her herd, we’re introduced to her offspring including newborn Mimi, a baby elephant too weak to forage for herself. 

When faced with having to migrate her herd away from their waterhole which is drying up, the journey ahead presents a daunting 200-mile journey across Kenya in the hopes of finding another waterhole.  Soon Athena is faced with the difficult choice of waiting for infant Mimi to catch up or letting her whole herd face starvation.

Shot over the course of four years, the project began when the filmmakers freely admitted they never filmed elephants before as their documentary subject.  The project first originated in 2009 when a severe drought hit the country and threatened the existence of the elephant population, a topic which immediately captured the attention of the filmmakers.  Upon entering Kenya, the filmmakers then spent a long time locating the elephant Athena before turning their cameras on the animals.  The resulting documentary film is full of scenic beauty, moments of genuine heartbreak and extraordinary ability to make the elephants’ story relatable.

Currently only available on the Apple TV+ service, The Elephant Queen is a splendid addition to the documentary film landscape and offers an in-depth look at the daily routine and uphill battles faced by the family of pachyderms.  Apple TV+ still has a long way to go as an original content creator and perhaps one day they will catch up to Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu.  For now however, The Elephant Queen is a step in the right direction for the streaming service and is visually one of the most breathtaking nature documentary films of the year!

--Andrew Kotwicki