"I guess I'm not 100% rational about all this," says David Balding, the affable circus owner at the center of Lisa Leeman's affecting documentary "One Lucky Elephant." It's a statement that positions him on the same instinctual level as his exotic pet, Flora, an orphaned African elephant that the Missouri-based ringleader raised from childhood. Covering an impressive 10-year span, the movie examines the man-beast dynamic as Balding seeks a better home for Flora outside the ring. However, Leeman leaves it unclear whether Balding or Flora require more cautious treatment: Their plight turns a nature movie into a story of family crisis.
Unlike recent activist documentaries about animal cruelty like "The Cove," Leeman's narrative doesn't feature any real villains. Balding's bond with Flora leaves him in a perpetual state of uncertainty about which possible new home for his elephant would provide the safest habitat. When an African wildlife preserve starts to sound sketchy, he gets cold feet; once Flora winds up at a care center primarily for Asian elephants and faces social problems, he goes through separation anxiety and can't stay away.
Leeman follows these proceedings with a straightforward verité approach that withholds judgment about Balding's attachment to the creature and the extent to which the elephant feels attached to him. The situation invites speculation and it's never entirely clear how Balding truly feels about giving Flora away, since nobody analyzes his situation as much as he does. His emotions are a greater mystery than Flora's, which receive expert scrutiny.
If Balding is the movie's central enigma, Flora serves as its solvable one. Researchers dissect her environmental needs and speculate about whether she suffers from post-traumatic stress. Facing a new enclosure with an existing dominant elephant, she's tasked with finding acceptance in wild conditions after spending the majority of her life living under Balding's paternal care. Fortunately, the director avoids standard nature movie clichés by not anthropomorphizing her animal subject, allowing close-ups of Flora's eyes to speak for themselves while the humans around her project their own interpretations.
For that reason, it's a tad misleading to characterize "One Lucky Elephant" as "a thinking person's 'Dumbo,'" as one critic has done. The Disney masterpiece provokes plenty of thoughts about loneliness and the power of the imagination. "Flora" engages with those themes but has its roots in a much different category. Leeman focuses on the tendency to interpret animal behavior through the prism of human thought.
Although not as cinematically advanced, her project calls to mind James Marsh's forthcoming "Project Nim," about a wide variety of individuals who attempt to maintain a bond with a chimp. In both cases, people expect that human nurturing has universal application and face the consequences when that supposition goes wrong. As a caretaker for Flora concludes, Balding's need to keep a watch over the elephant demonstrates "all that can go wrong with the best intentions," although at least in her case something can be done. An end credit explains that Flora is one of 600 elephants currently living in captivity, and that many others face harsher conditions. The title thus comes with a caveat: If Flora got lucky, many other elephants have much worse karma.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its family-friendly premise, "One Lucky Elephant" will probably perform nicely at New York's Film Forum this weekend and at the Laemmle Theatres in L.A. beginning June 24, in addition to finding appreciative audiences on Oprah's OWN Network.
criticWIRE grade: B+