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Documentary review: “Dolphin Reef” and “Elephant”

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Courtesy of Disneynature
2stars
“Dolphin Reef”
Narrator: Natalie Portman
Directors: Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholley
Release Date: April 3, 2020

News flash: Baby animals are cute.

This may not be the most hard-hitting news, but it seems worth reiterating, considering that this was my primary take-away from a recent double bill of Disney+ nature documentaries that launched this weekend: “Dolphin Reef” and “Elephant.”

If these two films are the first Disneynature documentaries to go straight to Disney+, they also fit very comfortably into the company’s oeuvre. There are babies doing cute things, babies being chased by predators, babies being anthropomorphized by the film’s narrators and babies snuggling with their mamas. Scintillating journalism these films are not.

2.5stars
“Elephant”
Narrator: Meghan Markle
Directors: Mark Linfield and Vanessa Berlowitz
Release Date: April 3, 2020

But they certainly are breathtaking to look at- so much so that it is a bit of a shame that these will never be seen on the big screen. “Dolphin Reef” in particular looks fantastic thanks to some high-def underwater cameras. From a fluorescent green wonderland inside an underwater cave to aerial shots of Africa, the films are full of visual wonders that will give you and your kids even more appreciation for the beauties of the natural world.

But the films’ beauty gets undermined a little- OK a lot- whenever the narrators pipe in, which they do almost constantly. The narration in these Disneynature films has always been something of a weak link, and that remains the case here.

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Courtesy of Disneynature

Narrators in Disneynature films have three basic modes: 1) Stating the obvious (“Look at the elephant walking!”); 2) Cloyingly imagining what an animal might be thinking in any given situation; and 3) Providing some basic trivia that probably won’t be enlightening to anyone over the age of 5.

The best of these films have made that formula work by hiring comedians (among them Tina Fey, Tim Allen, John C. Reilly and Ed Helms) to add an appropriate amount of whimsy and humor. But both “Dolphin Reef” and “Elephant” make the inexplicable decision to play things straight. Say what you will about Natalie Portman (narrator of “Dolphin Reef”) and Meghan Markle (narrator of “Elephant”), but whimsy isn’t their best quality.

Of the two films, “Dolphin Reef” is probably the more educational -highlighting the ecosystem of the coral reef and the symbiotic relationships that keep it alive. It also has the coolest factual tidbit of the two films. Did you realize that the humphead parrotfish poops sand? And that they excrete as much as five tons of sand a year? And that said sand/excrement comprises many tropical island beaches? I did not- and I am seriously rethinking my tropical island getaway now.

Despite its title, “Dolphin Reef” is a wide-ranging portrait of ocean life with footage of humpback whales, sharks and other cool sea creatures. There’s really no plot to speak of, and the random jumping around without any central focus makes it feel much longer than its 77-minute runtime.

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Courtesy of Disneynature

“Elephant,” on the other hand, has a much more linear plot, as it follows a herd of elephants on a journey from the Ockavango Delta to Victoria Falls and back in search of water. “Elephant” runs about 20 minutes longer than “Dolphin Reef” but feels shorter thanks to its more focused narrative.

If I had to pick a favorite of the two films, I’d lean toward “Elephant” thanks to its more linear narrative and the fact that elephants are indisputably awesome. But the films are comparable in quality, and your mileage will likely vary depending on which mammal you find more fascinating.

As beautiful as both films are, they feel like missed opportunities as well. The scripts aren’t nearly as enlightening or educational as they could be, and they never rise to the level of the visuals. If the films’ stunning footage belongs on the big screen, everything else feels strictly pedestrian. There’s a reason these films (both rated G) went straight to Disney+.

There are certainly worse things you could plop your children in front of, and I would love nothing more than a group of first graders exchanging humphead parrotfish trivia. But the sad truth is that both of these docs are forgettable enough that even an elephant might have a hard time remembering them.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

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