Sundance 2019: The Elephant Queen

By Katherine Rogers

Athena is 50 years old. She is a mother and, like her namesake, a wise leader. She is beautiful and big. She has the longest tusks out of her whole family. She is the matriarch of a herd of elephants in the African savanna. She is the Elephant Queen.

The Elephant Queen premiered as part of the kids’ section of the Sundance Film Festival on January 26. Directed by Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble and narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, this film is fun and touching. It focuses entirely on the animals of the savanna. The stories and cinematography will keep the attention of viewers of all ages.

The film takes the audience through the story of Athena’s difficult decision for the herd. The dry season is coming on and the herd’s normal water hole is starting to dry up. They need to find a more reliable source of water. This means walking 100 miles. If the herd was only grown elephants this would be fine, but there is a new calf in the family and she’s not very strong yet. Athena needs to figure out the timing of their trek. If she leaves too soon, the calf could fall behind. If she leaves too late, it could mean trouble for the whole family.

While the story of Athena’s herd is sobering, other stories throughout the movie keep it from becoming too heavy. There are stories about the neighbors who live at “toenail height” to the elephants. Little stories about foam frogs, tortoises and dung beetles keep the film light and the audience giggling. It even follows the early life of an Egyptian goose named Steven, who is always late and getting lost.

Beautiful cinematography helps tell these stories. There is incredible footage of storms rolling across the savanna and slow-motion shots showing goslings jumping from their nests for the first time. At one point the cameras go underground to show what water-dependent animals do during the dry season.

The film also highlights the effect that the elephants have on these neighbors. They depend on the pachyderms to make their watering holes, flush out their prey, even carry their babies to safety. The Elephant Queen tells a story about how interconnected the ecosystem is.

It took Stone and Deeble eight years to make The Elephant Queen. They spent years with Athena’s herd, watching them and getting to know them. It would be hard not to care for something that you have spent that much time with. Stone and Deeble’s love for these elephants and their neighbors easily shows through in the film. It makes the audience fall in love with the animals as well.

This film is more than just a love letter to elephants. It is also a plea to help them. The last frames of the movie are a URL to a website that, once the film is officially released, will include information about how to help. The “big tuskers” are constantly being hunted by poachers, even on protected land. They are falling in numbers. This film reminds us what a loss it would be if these gentle giants were to go. Not just for the savanna, but for all of us.

Sundance Showtimes Here.

Katherine Rogers is a senior communications major at the University of Utah. She is an intern with CATALYST Magazine. She has a lot of love for elephants.

This article was originally published on January 29, 2019.