Elephant Tales

Director: Mario Andreacchio
Patrick Bry, Aymeric Lecerf, Boris Ventura-Diaz

As I'm pretty sure I have told you in previous reviews, I am a city person. I live right downtown in my city, and every convenience that I could possibly need is either a short walk from my apartment location or a short bus trip away. That's how I like it, and I'm not going to change things any time soon. Still, I realize that being a city dweller, I get to miss a lot of things that people in the countryside get to experience on a regular basis. There isn't a lot of plant life in my neighborhood - mainly just a few trees planted at the edge of sidewalks. When it comes to animal life, things aren't much better. Occasionally I pass someone walking their dog, but that kind of animal is domesticated. When it comes to observing wild animals, about my only choice is to look out of my window and observe the birds that have gathered on the roof of the building that my apartment building is against. There are a lot of birds there, thanks to the fact that one of the tenants in my building regularly (and illegally) throws bread crumbs out his window onto that roof. Anyway, while those birds may be my only immediate choice in observing wild animals, the birds give me a lot of interest whenever I open my window to take a look at them. The birds (sparrows and seagulls) have some fascinating habits. While the sparrows don't mix with the seagulls (and vice versa), they do mix together in their own groups. Sometimes I see several birds of the same species perched close together and looking at each other with great intent. Sometimes a flock of the same kind of bird suddenly takes off from the roof, with them flying together to a new location in a formation that stays balanced and perfect even when they abruptly change the direction they are flying.

When I see such sights out of my window, I am fascinated. Even if the birds seem to be doing nothing but looking at each other, I can not help but wonder if they are communicating with each other. Of course they are not communicating in the way that humans do when they meet each other face to face - talking, in other words - but I have to wonder if they are delivering bona fide messages to each other. Sometimes I wonder what those messages would sound like if the birds could actually talk out loud. Actually, they probably wouldn't sound that intelligent. I remember reading a MAD Magazine article parodying a PETA newsletter that had a story about a chimpanzee that had been trained in sign language, and the PETA reporters of course claimed that what the chimpanzee communicated showed intelligence. The article quoted several statements the chimpanzee signed, which were to the effect of statements to the effect of, "Ball monkey banana fun." Though I do know some apes and monkeys in real life have shown some ability to express themselves with sign language, I did get what the article was essentially saying. Animals are not rocket scientists, and if they could talk out loud, what they had to say would almost certainly not sound very coherent. If horses can be conned over and over to be slaves to humans and allow themselves to be ridden by their human masters and do other back-breaking work, then certainly these same animals could not reason well enough to effectively communicate what they were feeling and what they were also thinking.

Despite all of this, we humans love to imagine animals not only have the ability to talk, but that they also have the intelligence to talk in a manner that makes them sound like reasonably intelligent humans. Most of these imagined animal talking scenarios are aimed at children, which isn't a Elephant Talessurprise. Children have great imaginations and love fantasy stories, and they like their stories to be a bit removed from reality so they don't have to imagine themselves in the same predicament. The three little pigs may have been threatened by a wolf, but it wouldn't happen to the human child hearing the story. Anyway, when it comes to movies depicting talking animals, this adult viewer often asks himself why the animals may talk intelligently but commit physical acts that come across like those of a typical dumb animal. Obviously, it's because it can be hard to train an animal to act human. So I was not looking forward to watching the children's film Elephant Tales, which promised to be full of talking animals. It was only the movie's unusual pedigree - a co-production between Australia and France - that got me curious to put the disc into my DVD player. Elephant Tales takes place in Africa, and it concerns two brothers, a teenager named Zef and his younger brother Tutu. Though Zef and Tutu are not human - they are elephants, and are living happy lives on the African plains with their mother and the rest of their herd. One night, Zef, Tutu, and the rest of the herd's elephants are visited by what they call "The Badness" - some incomprehensible evil force that makes loud noises and bright lights. Zef and Tutu manage to get away from "The Badness", but the rest of their herd disappears while the two brothers are in hiding. Zef soon realizes that he and his younger brother must find a new elephant herd to join if they are to survive, so they start on a long cross country journey. They meet and take along with them during their journey three other parentless animals: a baby giraffe, a lion cub, and a young chimpanzee. But even having a party of five all working together, there is still a danger that "The Badness" might strike again...

Elephant Tales got a "G" rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, so it's understandable that many parents coming across the movie may conclude from that rating alone that the movie is safe for kids. On the other hand, if you have closely read that plot description for the movie that I typed out in the above paragraph, you will see that the movie deals with some issues that can often be heavy for kids, namely kids being orphaned and left to their own devices, as well as kids being possibly threatened with losing their lives. So is the movie safe or not for kids to watch? Well, if your kids were able to handle the rough spots the Disney movie Bambi had quite well, they should be able to get through this movie with no trauma. The killing of Zef's and Tutu's mother happens out of camera range (though gunshots are heard), though some younger kids may not fully understand what happened to her. When the orphaned animals subsequently start their journey, there's more of a feeling of determination than sadness or panic with these creatures; they are able to conquer various obstacles along the way fairly well. Kids in the audience shouldn't get terribly upset at any point in the movie. So the movie is pretty safe for your average kid, but will kids like the movie? I have an idea that some kids - namely very young kids - may enjoy it. The movie does have several appealing elements for the young. Most obvious of them all are all the animals displayed, which more often than not look cute and very appealing. There is also the African backdrop, which may also interest them. Probably the most appealing thing kids will find with Elephant Tales is the fact that the animals up front and center in the movie are thinly disguised human children. Kids will like seeing these youthful characters conquer various obstacles, and find appeal with such human aspects to these animals as the younger brother / older brother relationship between Zef and Tutu.

So there is an audience for Elephant Tales out there. However, I am not part of that select audience, and most likely than not you aren't as well. I am an adult who has long left behind my child-like ways, and that explains why I found the movie extremely tough to sit through. For one thing, the characters were a chore to behold. I could put aside such facts like the elephants Zef and Tutu being the exact same size despite Zef being much older... the fact that the Tutu was given the voice of a woman despite being male... and that the entire animal cast had been given a variety of accents by the human voice cast. But I couldn't excuse the gosh-darn awful dialogue they were given. Tutu was downright annoying at times with his frequent whining and general stupidity. His older brother Zef was somewhat more palatable, but there were still plenty of things to dislike about him, such as when he cracks jokes and brags not long after his mother's death. The other animals that join up with the elephant brothers also come across as unsympathetic, with the chimpanzee bragging about being a king, the giraffe not wanting at first to have to do anything with the other animals, and the lion cub (who doesn't even get a proper name - he's just referred to as "Cub") bragging about being a prince. The movie doesn't give these animals any dialogue that endears them to the audience. For example, there is the inevitable scene when Zef has to reveal to Tutu that their mother isn't just "away". Instead of writing an emotionally-charged dialogue between the two brothers, the movie has us instead listen to the two cheetahs who have been giving occasional narration to the movie, who tell us that Zef tells Tutu the truth. To add insult to injury, not only do the cheetah narrators don't tell us how Tutu reacts to this news, the movie immediately cuts to the next scene as if nothing major had just happened.

I have a strong feeling that the reason why the animal characters and their dialogue are so badly written is how writer and director Mario Andreacchio (Napoleon) apparently constructed the movie. Although there are some animal moments that were obviously pre-planned (the chimpanzee does pull off some mildly impressive tricks), there is a strong indication that big chunks of the movie simply had Andreacchio pointing the camera at the animals that were doing what came naturally to them. Then Andreacchio screened the footage with his co-writers and then wrote dialogue that tried to fit with what the animals were doing. This would explain many things, especially about the many times in the movie when essentially nothing of importance or significance is happening.  This is an extremely slow-moving movie, and in part because of the snail-like pace, there is absolutely no energy or tension to be found in any scene. Even the scenes with the animals' encounters with "the Badness" just lie there, and you don't feel a thing. Though Andreacchio doesn't just fail in the director's chair with the utter lack of passion. There are some big unanswered questions, like how one human is able to get a cage with an elephant in it from the ground into the back of a truck. And there was the unwise decision to make the movie a quasi-musical, unwise because the songs are both bad and unmemorable, at their best sounding like a third-rate Randy Newman imitation. While I did say that very young kids might enjoy Elephant Tales, anyone will a more developed mind will more likely than not find it really tough to sit through. I strongly suspect that the reason the movie got the title it got was that it sounded exactly like "elephant tails". And if you know the anatomy of an elephant, you'll know exactly what lies under an elephant tail, and what it produces and covers the tail with on a regular basis. Which is the same condition you'll find with this movie should you unwisely watch it.

(Posted September 1, 2020)

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See also: Animals Are Beautiful People, Sherlock: Undercover Dog, Two Bits & Pepper