Film Review: One Lucky Elephant

This superbly informative, affecting documentary about an undying bond between man and beast may well be the most moving film of 2011.

Forget Garbo and Robert Taylor in Camille, or even Leo and Kate in Titanic. One Lucky Elephant reveals a love story even more heartbreaking, that between circus impresario David Balding and Flora, an African elephant he has trained since infancy to perform. The heartbreak factor rears its head when Balding must decide what to do with her when she retires from the arena.

There are sadly few options open for Flora, and director/co-writer Lisa Leeman presents them with a clear-headed yet passionate objectivity that pulls the viewer in so powerfully that you can feel the cliffhanger-like, fraught anxiety shared by both master and beast. Most zoos are woefully ill-equipped to properly house pachyderms, but one in Pittsburgh at least has the benefit of one of the world’s most savvy elephant trainers. Unfortunately, due to the imminent birth of babies there, it is an impossibility to introduce any new resident.

Balding reluctantly turns Flora over to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. It’s a precarious fit, as she is kept separate from the other elephants, who are Indian and very different behaviorally. Even worse, when Flora starts acting up destructively, the sanctuary’s owner forbids Balding from making his cherished visits, as she feels that that has a traumatizing effect on her.

Remember that upsetting Disney moment when Dumbo was separated from his mother? Even that had nothing on One Lucky Elephant’s pathos, as you see Balding, himself aged and in ill health, literally pining for Flora, while his very understanding wife admits that she’s always felt like the “other woman.” (The footage of Balding and Flora together is marked by the bittersweet irony of this infirm, overweight gent lumbering alongside his massive beloved, who moves with the singular grace of her species.)

One Lucky Elephant is a lovely, important achievement, a heartfelt plea for animal rights as well as truly educational about these amazing creatures, especially in their socialization and frequent traumatized history in captivity. After seeing it, the next time you’re at a zoo you’ll view these wondrous animals in an entirely new, enlightened way.