What weighs more, the ton of things wrong with "One Lucky Elephant" or the film's main subject? That depends, I guess, on whether you think that subject is Flora, the elephant of the title (though I never understood in what way she's "lucky"), or circus ringleader Ivor David Balding, who is still quite a heavy man. I see it as his selfish tale of not wanting to let go of his pet, star, friend, daughter and anything else he thinks of Flora, upon whom his St. Louis-based show is named. Balding and the elephant have been together 16 years, but she's no longer into circus work and needs a new home. Early on he tells a local news crew that the separation is like sending his kid off to college. If you're familiar with Doug Block's "The Kids Grow Up," there is indeed some similarity between that film's story of parent-child separation and this one.
A more obvious comparison, though, because both films involve the long, sad lives of animals adopted young and then transferred from home to home, is to be made with James Marsh's "Project Nim," which arrives in theaters weeks after "One Lucky Elephant" and is so poignant and polished it makes this film look like an amateur home movie. In fact, the camera quality on "Elephant" is such that actual home movie footage inserted into the doc is hard to distinguish from the material the filmmakers shot themselves. At least news reports are distinct; I'm pretty certain they were ripped from YouTube or a comparable site and look even worse. Suffice to say, if you must see it, don't bother with a screen bigger than your laptop.
Am I being too harsh? Normally I would think so. After all, what's the worth in me so negatively criticizing the decade-long effort of director Lisa Leeman and writer/producer/cinematographer Cristina Colissimo? Or even co-producer/composer Miriam Cutler, who also works for Circus Flora? That it ultimately, somewhat surprisingly reveals itself to be a set-up for a non-profit organization we can donate to in order to keep Flora well cared for at a sanctuary in Tennessee? That's one reason I need to be harsh, because why should you pay for a feature-length animal rights PSA? Particularly one that spends much of its running time seemingly celebrating the circus and the zoo and focusing on how cute baby elephants are before finally getting us to this relatively preferred refuge outside of Nashville?
I still wouldn't mind so much if "One Lucky Elephant" wasn't so highly praised by everyone else. It shows how low the critical standards for documentary are lately. Yes, I will give the film a few things. It presents a complex relationship and concentrates a lot of its time on a man who isn't so much a bad guy as just an easily unlikable one, and like the basic plot of "Project Nim" it displays the dangers of getting too close to creatures made to live in the wild, for us and them. It could be a little more discouraging of those institutions that encourage transport of elephants out of Africa and India in the first place. And as far as the character arc of Balding is concerned, there's never really any indication that he wouldn't just do the same thing over again, from the start or now with a new animal (as far as I can tell, Circus Flora has not gotten a replacement for its retired namesake).
The filmmakers don't have to worry, though. My reviews, while posted to Rotten Tomatoes, don't affect the Tomatometer, and so "One Lucky Elephant" can continue with its 100% score, which is typical for undeserving documentaries that are only reviewed by a few outlets, many of them consistently too gentle with non-fiction film -- and advertisements disguised as such.
"One Lucky Elephant" is now playing in NYC and opens in LA later this month.
Recommended If You Like: "Larger Than Life"; "Water for Elephants"; your grandpa's home movies from the zoo