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June 17, 2011

One Lucky Elephant

One-lucky-elephant You might be left to wonder just how "lucky" Flora the African elephant is, while watching Lisa Leeman's documentary about the fate of said orphaned pachyderm. At two-years-old Flora became the star attraction in David Balding's one-ring family circus in 1984. Flora was captured in Zimbabwe where she witnessed her mother slaughtered. Balding titled his St. Louis circus after the elephant that he grew to love and care for like a child. Take note, wild animals are not to be domesticated. By 2000 Flora didn't enjoy performing as she had in her youth. Balding makes the difficult decision to find a suitable home for the 10,000 pound animal that is certain to outlive him. His health is failing. He wants to return the elephant to Africa but political unrest there make it impossible.

The crux of the film revolves around Balding's sustained attempts at placing Flora in a refuge rather than in a zoo. After a temporary stay in the Miami Metro Zoo lightening seems to strike. Elephant-performer-turned-sanctuary-owner Carol Buckley adds an African elephant to the Asian elephants that freely roam her Elephant Sanctuary in rural Tennessee. With a species-similar companion in waiting Flora is welcomed into Buckley's compound with the promise that her former keeper Mr. Balding can visit whenever he so desires. Promises, promises. Flora begins displaying violent behavior against humans. People are hurt. She is diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress-disorder by a snake oil animal shrink. The result is that the aging Balding is forbidden from seeing the animal he holds dear to his heart. 

"One Lucky Elephant" compares unfavorably against James Marsh's far superior documentary "Project Nim," about a domesticated chimpanzee. However sympathetic and well-intentioned David Balding and Carol Buckley seem at the outset, both engage in animal exploitation that the filmmakers make concessions to equivocate for. It's coincidental that the movie comes out alongside Cindy Meehl's documentary about real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman. As Meeh's film exemplifies, the problem isn't with the animal; it's with people.

Not Rated. 81 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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