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Culture » Film Reviews

Second Nature

Two new features on Disney+ showcase a formula that works.


Ivory towers: Little baby Jomo in Elephant. - DISNEYNATURE
  • Disneynature
  • Ivory towers: Little baby Jomo in Elephant.

When Disney launched Disneynature in 2008—providing a home for nature documentaries—it was actually reviving a formula that had been tremendously successful for the company in the 1950s and 1960s True-Life Adventures series. With April 3 marking the Disney+ debut of the brand-new Disneynature features Dolphin Reef and Elephant, it's worth taking a look at the characteristics that have made many of these documentaries so appealing.

A cute, young protagonist. Disney has always understood the appeal of adorable animals, and of giving kids a surrogate character to latch on to. Dolphin Reef focuses its story around a 3-year-old dolphin named Echo, and the lessons he needs to learn from his mother in order to survive on his own, while Elephant provides a 1-year-old African elephant calf named Jomo during his herd's annual migration through the Kalahari Desert. A young hero offers not just emotions to which kids can relate—like the fear of getting separated from Mom—but plenty of playful antics to provide comic relief between scenes that show the harsh realities of the natural world. And maybe there's something even more relatable to the fact that both Echo and Jomo seem to find it hard to focus at times on the life lessons their parents are trying to impart.

Humanize those animals. Like it or not, it can be hard for many people to relate to animals except in human terms. The Disneynature narratives invariably put us inside the animals' heads through the narration, assuring us that we're not the only living things that worry about our kids, get frustrated with our neighbors (like the colorful peacock mantis shrimp in Dolphin Reef) or appreciate the physical contact of our own kind. Boy oh boy, does that last part resonate right now.

A soothing narrator's voice. As much as these documentaries' narration instruct us, it's also there to be reassuring when scenes get scary, like the humpback whale calf hunted by orcas in Dolphin Reef, or Jomo getting threatened by a pride of lions. Natalie Portman's narration of Dolphin Tale feels a bit more on-target in her measured confidence than that of Meghan (Markle), Duchess of Sussex in Elephant, as the latter allows a little too much bouncy lilt into her words.

Amazing cinematography capturing the story's subjects. This is in some ways the bottom line of the Disneynature brand, as the movies are occasionally at their most fascinating during the behind-the-scenes closing credits shots that show how the filmmakers actually got their remarkable footage. But both Dolphin Reef and Elephant bring us images that feel either urgently real—like the threat to an elephant calf drowning in mud in Elephant—or stunning at showing us things we've never seen before. When Dolphin Reef captures the result of one dolphin hunting technique—kicking up a ring of silt that forces fish to leap into the air to escape it—you understand how much amazing stuff there is to learn about the world, and how a simply appealing way of presenting you that stuff can make you feel more connected to the rest of the planet.

Dolphin Reef ***
Elephant ***

Also premiering on demand April 3: Never Rarely Sometimes Always (***.5)
The narrative around writer/director Eliza Hittman's feature is going to be that it's about abortion, but that's not the case. Not really. Not entirely. It is true that Pennsylvania 17-year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy, and—requiring parental consent in her home state—travels to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to have an abortion. Hittman digs into plenty of details surrounding the circumstances of a teenager trying to terminate a pregnancy, including encounters with a pro-life "crisis pregnancy" center, and the details of the procedure itself. But on a much sadder, more profound level, Hittman connects abortion to a culture of men sexualizing underage girls, then making those girls the only ones responsible for the consequences. Flanigan and Ryder are both revelations, as Hittman (It Felt Like Love,Beach Rats) employs her trademark naturalism in a way that asks her actors to fill in a lot of blanks non-verbally. On some level, they're asked to be universal rather than specific in their characterizations, but those performances serve a narrative that doesn't just ask "why is it so hard for a teen girl to end an unwanted pregnancy," but also "what world have men built that contributes to so many unwanted teen pregnancies."