Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale


Naledi goes walkies.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Netflix) Mike Chase, Wellington Jana, Brett Mitchell, Boago Poloko, Robert O’Brien. Directed by Ben Bowie and Geoff Luck

 

The plight of the African elephant is largely well-known now; poachers kill the majestic creatures at a terrifying rate of 96-100 every day and all for their tusks which are highly prized particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Naledi was born into this situation. We witness her first moments of life – her birth was captured on film – and that footage is absolutely incredible. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the movie. From there, Naledi’s life isn’t easy. Her mother dies of disease when she’s only a month old and the men of the elephant preserve camp in Botswana where she was born have to fight to keep the baby alive. It’s no easy matter.

Mike Chase, one of the camp’s directors, is an outspoken advocate for the elephants and regularly addresses governments and NGOs to discuss the elephants and what can be done to save them. Much of the film in fact focuses on the Great African Census, an attempt to get an idea of how many elephants are left in the wild and sadly the numbers are a lot worse than feared. Preserves where once hundreds and thousands of elephants lived have fewer than a dozen still in the wild. Poachers, who are paid princely sums of money (for that part of the world) for the tusks, have to get bolder as their prey get fewer. Chase explains that those who employ the poachers – the distributors of ivory – actually want the elephants to go extinct. When the elephants are gone after all their ivory will skyrocket in price. I don’t think I’ve heard a greater indictment of the sickness of greed and the excesses of capitalism in my life.

That the current situation involving African elephants is absolutely critical is a given. The question that faces a film reviewer here is do they present the information in a way that will move people to action or at least sympathy and the answer is clearly yes. However, one must also look at the title of the film and perhaps take a step back.

The title seems to imply that the story here is Naledi and we do get to see a lot of her. She’s one of the cutest animal characters that you’ll ever see and she has a ton of personality. DisneyNature has made their mark anthropomorphizing animals and telling stories using the footage they gather; that’s not necessary here. The footage by itself tells the story and the animal herself is enthralling without assigning voiceover characteristics to her. Points to the filmmakers for that.

But if you think you’re getting a cute Disney-esque story about a baby elephant, that’s only about half the film. Most of it is an environmental treatise which, as previously stated, does present the plight of the species eloquently but in all honesty there are plenty of other films that have done that as well including Netflix own The Ivory Game. Quite frankly, if I had to choose between the two films to educate an audience about what’s going on with African elephants, I would choose The Ivory Game over Naledi. Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping to bring in a family demographic with the promise of cute baby elephants but I’m not so sure this is entirely appropriate for family audiences, particularly those with sensitive sorts in it. Naledi’s story is not an easy one to watch all the time.

Still, one can’t complain about a film for bringing an important subject to the table, even if they are essentially repeating things that have already been said. It also should be said that the filmmakers turn their attention to the Great Elephant Census which is helping activists focus efforts on where it is needed the most, something that wasn’t mentioned in The Ivory Game that I can recall. Chase is heavily involved in that project. The movie is a little rough for the wee ones but those who care about elephants should see it, even if the filmmakers are preaching to the choir.

The movie had a theatrical debut at the Seattle International Film Festival late last year and but really only played a few festivals before heading to Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really publicized the movie much if at all and there are few reviews of it out there. The movie is certainly flawed but it deserves better, even if it is false advertising to a certain extent. At the very least it makes a fine companion piece to The Ivory Game and the early scenes of Naledi are worth seeing all by themselves. One must also consider the grim option that if things continue to go the way they’re going, the only place to see these magnificent animals will be on films like this – after the last one is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Naledi has an engaging and adorable personality. As you might expect, the cinematography is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The dual story between Naledi and the conservation efforts doesn’t always mesh well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Great Elephant Census is largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Born in China
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Exception

Bears


Here are the three bears - where's Goldilocks?!

Here are the three bears – where’s Goldilocks?!

(2014) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) John C. Reilly (narrator). Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey and Adam Chapman

We humans have an affinity for bears. Teddy Bears, the Berenstein Bears, Yogi Bear, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh and of course Smokey the Bear. Cute and cuddly as they may be (and they are most certainly the former although I would think long and hard before cuddling with a bear), they nevertheless have a rough life up there in the Alaska wilderness.

Sky, a mama bear, has two cubs – Amber and Scout. Where is papa bear, asked some critics – far, far away so that he doesn’t try to kill them and/or eat them. I told you they have a rough life. Anyway, their long winter nap is over. While the mountain peaks they made their den in is still covered deep with snow (so much so that avalanches are a problem – more of that rough life stuff), spring is coming to the valleys below.

They haven’t eaten all winter and they are near to starving, but the first order of business isn’t finding food once they get out of the mountains. No sir; that business is keeping the cubs away from predators, like Magnus and Chinook – fellow bears who are so hungry they could eat…another bear. There’s also Tikaani, a wolf who is as sly and persistent as they come. There’s that rough life thing again.

What bears really crave is salmon – loaded in protein and abundant as they swim up river to spawn, bears have to become adept fisherman which is a lot easier than it sounds – they’re slippery little buggers. But getting there is no easy task and until then, they load up on muscles, eels and whatever they can find to put at least something in their bellies to keep the engines going. However, that won’t be enough to build up enough fat to last the winter. Not only do the adult bears live off their own fat, metabolizing it into sugars and proteins, the energy also keeps mama bear’s milk supply flowing. Without enough fat stored, the mama bear might survive the winter but the cubs won’t.

And the odds aren’t in the cubs favor anyway – 50% of all bear cubs born in the wilderness don’t make it to their first birthday, mostly due to predators although disease, starvation and a shrinking habitat all have something to do with it. Did I mention they have a tough life?

DisneyNature has made a niche for itself by delivering nature documentaries with absolutely breathtaking images, following in the tradition of Walt’s True Life Adventures  There are plenty of gorgeous images of the Alaskan landscape, mostly taken in Katmai National Park (the same place where Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell lived for 13 summers with the bears and eventually was killed and partially eaten by one). It is easy to see from the footage why those who live in Alaska love it so deeply. It is truly the last frontier.

One of my ongoing irritations with the DisneyNature series is their repeated need to give human characteristics, motivations and names to these animals. I would maintain that they are incredible creatures on their own without making them more “like us” in an effort to appeal to kids. Not only does this do a disservice to kids by giving them the impression that wild animals have the same motivations as we do (which in some cases they do but not all).

There is at least one glaring factual error in the narration which any naturalist worth their salt would have caught. Bears don’t actually hibernate; they nap. They don’t sleep throughout the winter; they simply stay in their dens, sleeping most of the time but not all. True hibernation is non-stop slumber. If you’re going to be a nature documentary, the least you can do is get your facts straight. I would have liked to have hears some fairly obvious explanations, like the whereabouts of papa bear and why mama bear was looking after the kids alone.

Lest I forget, John C. Reilly’s narration is da bomb. It has the right amount of humor to keep things interested, entertaining and lively but not so much that it overshadows the information and message that the filmmakers are trying to get across. I understand that Reilly had some input into the dialogue, which is even more aces in my estimation.

Still, this is some terrific footage, often so close-up that you can see individual follicles of fur easily. It is oddly intimate and makes you wonder how close the camera crew got (as the end credits show, pretty damn close although perhaps not as close as you’d expect). Bears are insanely cute and make excellent subjects for the camera. Amber and Scout are primarily used as comedy relief although there is some legitimate peril to the cubs; one nearly drowns at one point, and one disappears while Tikaani is stalking them.

This isn’t the best of the DisneyNature films, but it is solid and as beautiful as anything you’ll see on Discovery or Animal Planet – or the BBC for that matter. Your kids will be entranced and maybe motivated to look up more information about bears, their habitat and their behaviors. Worthwhile stuff for kids to be interested in, if you ask me (not that you are). And if the movie motivates some kid to go that route, then it’s a worthwhile endeavor indeed.

One last thing; Disney had pledged to donate a portion of ticket sales during the first week of release (which has now passed) to the National Parks Foundation in order to help protect our National Parks which sorely need it. Some cynical sorts have been sneering that the amount was infinitesimal. According to Disney’s website, they are donating twenty cents from each ticket sold with a minimum of $100,000 going to the Foundation. That’s a fairly substantial amount for which I know the National Parks Foundation is appreciative.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful photography with some amazing close-up shots. Cute and cuddly critters.

REASONS TO STAY: Once again over-anthropomorphizes.   

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bear battling and other bear stuff might frighten the wee ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first four DisneyNature films are among the top five highest grossing nature documentaries of all-time.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Zero Theorem