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"One Lucky Elephant" is Everything That's Wrong With Documentary Today

by Christopher Campbell
June 8, 2011 3:03 AM
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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

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  • DW | May 10, 2014 8:08 PMReply

    Wow Chris,
    You sure think you are important. Ha.

  • Lorenza | April 29, 2014 6:31 PMReply

    The fact of the matter is all wild animals must be respected as the animal nature they are and kept with their kind in the wild of their environment. I was very sad for Flora. It is bad enough she witnessed her mother killed and taken from her pack to be sold for the benefit of those who slaughtered her family. She was bought by a man who forced her to be who she became. This in itself is very sad. How would we like it if someone bought us for a price, caged us and forced us to become what that someone wanted us to be? Not only was Flora devastated by her family being killed, she had to endure more suffering in order to entertain humans for man's benefit. It didn't matter what Flora wanted, it only mattered what that man wanted. I'm happy that Flora is finally with her kind living in the wild of freedom. Now she can think for herself without man forcing her to become what she is not.

  • Ashley | April 16, 2014 11:27 PMReply

    I liked the documentary and I don't think he was being selfish at all. I think they should let him see flora since she was his " pet" after all for all those years and like he said he loves her and she loves him. People will say bad stuff about you no matter who you are so I think people shouldn't judge him by the decisions he's made because everyone has choices in life and he thought the choices he made was best for her. I think it was wrong for them to tell him he couldn't see flora and i hope they will change there minds soon. So quit being haters and try putting yourself in his shoes!!

  • Dave | April 16, 2014 9:08 PMReply

    This review is terribly shallow, and totally misses some important elements within the story.
    First, producing a documentary which spans the breadth of time and place as this tale will inherently include video of widely varying quality.
    Second, Mr. Campbell doesn't seem to recognize the growth in David's appreciation for the animal's comfort and well being as both he and Flora age together.
    And finally, David demonstrates a deep affection and caring for Flora long after she can no longer provide for him. Throughout the process he develops a tremendous understanding of Flora's needs and in the end did everything he could to make sure those needs were met, even to his own detriment; the pain in the loss of contact with her.
    Is David flawed? Certainly. Is the documentary perfect? No, it isn't. But it does provide a beautifully intimate window into elephants, helping us to understand the amazing nuances of personality of which these spectacular animals are capable.

  • | May 11, 2014 12:08 PM

    Dave, thanks for your well-said comment. You chose to highlight the positive aspects of the story itself--the characters and the story-line with which the documentary-makers intended--rather than focusing on a few petty negatives and seizing upon the film as some kind of symbolic trigger for a personal, negative, vitriolic spew which masquerades as "journalism." It's too bad that more and more people these days confuse criticism--which refers to critique--as seemingly requiring one to be contentiously negative. To that effect, the author of this post, Christopher Campbell, is certainly representative of everything that is wrong with online/social media, pseudo-journalism (aka the "Huff-effect") today.

  • Ryan | April 2, 2014 1:06 PMReply

    Susan - You don't get it and the irony here is that the writer of this article is talking about people like you and yet you continue to make comments to reinforce the fact that you still don't get it. You feel bad for Mr. Balding? Really? You feel bad that Flora can't visit with the man that kidnapped her, tortured her, caged her, forced her to be in a circus for his profit, etc? I don't understand your mindset here. Your justification is that they formed a bond since elephants have long memories and very close relationships. What if the relationship is forced since the elephant wants to eat? What if the relationship is forced because the elephant is kept in a trailer and doesn't want to get whipped? What if the relationship is forced since this is the only living thing the elephant has a chance to bond with?

    The filmaker has succeeded in making you feel sorry for the man that created this entire problem.

  • DW | May 10, 2014 8:07 PM

    Ryan, you have no clue as to what you are writing. Flora was never 'whipped', nor 'tortured'. If Flora stayed where she was , she too would have been poached.

  • Vendetta | June 26, 2013 9:33 PMReply

    I am an animal lover of all species and enjoyed the documentary,"One Lucky Elephant." Though I too don't quite understand why she was such a lucky elephant. After watching this I felt very sad for Flora and Mr. Balding. Watching this has made me change my views about animals in circuses. I never gave it much thought until I seen how these animals are treated. I also think it was uncalled for to say Mr. Balding is still heavy. What does that have to do with the subject matter of this documentary? Do you think that Flora cared that he was heavy? He loved Flora but sometimes we don't do the right thing.

  • Donna | April 15, 2012 9:30 AMReply

    Wow just want to say that after seeing this documentary the main feeling I got was what an unluckly elephant she was - not lucky. I was absolutely disgusted that the lady from the animal sanctuary refused to allow Mr Balding to visit Flora. To think that this small minded woman would think that it would be in the best interests of the animal to cut all contact with the only person in her life that she had established a real bond with is beyond comprehension. Not only now has Flora had to endure the cruelty of being separated from her family as a youngster but now she has to endure being separated from the only person that raised and cared for her and with whom she shared a bond and friendship. Great the person she trusted and known all her life has abandoned her. Yeah good on ya sister your really helping Flora - thats why she was throwing rocks at you to show her appreciation. You can see Flora dosen't think much of her new owners. I think that if Mr Balding new he wan't going to be allowed to see Flora again he wouldn't have sent her there in the first place and rightly so. Sure I dont condone circus animals but the reality is it happened to Flora and in the process she had someone she could trust. Its a shame he didn't stand his ground more and demand to see Flora. I feel sorry for Flora and Mr Balding.

  • susan | March 3, 2014 2:17 PM

    Very well said... as good as the sanctuary may be, I think she did flora more harm when she prevented her from seeing david. It's heartbreaking... can't a bunch of us get together and somehow sneak him in or sneak her (flora) out so they can see each other? Oh and the guy who panned this movie is almost right because the better movie will be the one in which David and Flora are reunited.

  • Seuss | November 22, 2013 1:35 AM

    I agrew. That lady was ridiculous. Elephants bond forever and Flora happened to bond with David. She was being possessive and selfish not to let Flora see David and it was bad faith to agree to one thing then do another. I bet Flora still misses him. Boo on that sanctuary lady.

  • Candace White | January 18, 2012 3:57 PMReply

    I still feel disturbed after watching the documentary and had a feeling that I had missed something or misunderstood it - I can't get the image of poor Flora being trained out of my head. There seemed to be no compassion in it - for a young animal who had been traumatised already by the murder of her family (and we know how close elephants' bonds with their families are). I saw the film last night and still feel bad about what I saw. It's disgusting that so many idiot parents take their brats to circuses that use animals - maybe if they see this documentary they will think twice (although I agree that the film didn't really take a stand against circuses - I think that caused some of my confusion).
    Definitely won't be watching the film about Nim - I wouldn't be able to cope with that at all.

  • Diane | January 17, 2012 10:01 PMReply

    Just watched this documentary, a short reply, sad sorry little man that does not care about wild animals. This was all about him.

  • Brian | January 5, 2012 6:00 AMReply

    Thank Heavens we have Christopher Campbell to tell us how things really are. There I was, feeling deeply moved by this documentary. But now I know better - although I couldn't tell while I was watching, it was actually pathetic! Yay Christopher!

  • Tabitha | December 14, 2011 7:36 PMReply

    I say ‘Dear Flora’ is indeed lucky. She may love him and he her, BUT, he let the cruelty happen to her, when she was being trained. She had no one else to love but he, no other elephants and they are herd animals. She was chained and disrespected totally, they have long memories. So I can see what Carol was saying. “She wants Flora to relax and be with her own kind”. And every time he came back, Flora got upset. There wasn’t anyway to handle the problem, he had to stay away. If he had thoughts at all, he would have realized that.
    She was just a baby when she went to the circus, which is why it so wrong to have ‘big wild animals ‘in the circus and he didn’t wasn’t a great role model, I feel…

  • jacqie | August 23, 2014 8:57 AM

    How long do you make mistakes, learn from them and then still pay the price? David and Carol both learned, appreciate and respect the dignity of these animals, even if it's just a few more years. Both could have not cared where they went, but both chose to make better decisions than previous ones. Flora, nor any other captive animal can be sent back to the wild for many reasons, this is the best solution. If anyone would bother to follow up on Flora or any of the other elephants that have fabulous lives in the sanctuary would know everyone is flourishing living better lives, and this is as close as they ever be to living in a natural environment. P.S. Has anyone researched sanctuaries in other countries, where there is poaching every day on the sanctuary? This may not be ideal, but they have NEVER lived a better life.

  • susan | March 3, 2014 2:23 PM

    If that's true than carol needs to stay out of the paddocks as well. It's fine for HER to bond with an elephant (remember, she had hers on roller skates and her asian elephant also performed in a circus with her) but not david? She interacts with the elephants daily, but somehow that has gotten lost.. the elephants still aren't any closer to their natural environment. David stayed away and respected her choice because he loves flora and wants the best for her... amazing how that got lost too.

  • Alana | December 14, 2011 1:27 AMReply

    I am not sure Mr Campbell watched the same documentary as the one I just watched. I dont feel like I just sat through a PSA. They are usually boring as batsh*t and of no value...USUALLY. I feel Mr Campbell just took an instant disliking to Mr Balding.
    Why did you feel it necessary to state " Ivor David Balding, who is still quite a heavy man"? Good lord man...I think Mr Balding knows he is carrying more than the ideal in body fat, but was it really necessary be sooo judgemental. I know I didnot have to read any further to know the vein in which your article was written.
    Flors did not care that Mr Balding was "still quite a heavy man". I did not care for that matter. Are fat people less than in your eyes Mr Campbell. I can assure you Mr Balding probably has mirrors in his house, he did not have to do this doco to learn that bit of earth shattering news ...he is overweight...BIG DEAL..... Flora loves him for him.
    You havethe hide of an elephant sir. Your article is an insult and I hope no one supports you or any employer of yours . I certainly WONT.
    Mr Balding was sincere in this doco, and he acknowleged the rights and wrongs of his and others past actions. You chose to ignore that part of the doco.
    Your review is biased, nasty and not a fair critique of the doco.

  • Les | December 6, 2011 7:34 PMReply

    Bottom line: Flora's luck changed for the better when she arrived at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. She remains there, with another African elephant as a friend, plus dedicated caregivers, ample space to roam, and state-of-the-art facilities for elephant care. In that sense, she is indeed one lucky elephant.

    As for Carol, she no longer has any affiliation with the Elephant Sanctuary, aside from ongoing litigation. But you can google that at your leisure.

    Whatever you may think about the film, or the motives of the people involved, it is irresponsible to cast aspersions on the Elephant Sanctuary, a non-profit organization that accepts retired zoo and performing elephants and provides them the closest thing possible to a natural habitat within the United States. It is an organization worthy of financial support, and if the film seemed like a PSA, so be it -- few entities are more deserving of a PSA.

  • Andrea | December 2, 2011 3:51 PMReply

    All opinions are valid here, but the reality is we are incredibly selfish as humans, and need to rectify some of the havoc we have wreaked on other species. Elephants have always been my favorite animal, and they should NEVER be made to stand on a BALL! This documentary is important. I encourage anyone who is disturbed by preforming animals, to sign petitions at under the "animals" section. Just type in "Elephants" and you can sign different petitions to help put a stop to Elephants in zoo's and circuses. Also, don't be afraid to share with your friends that taking their kids to zoos, circuses, and places like seaworld is ignorant and just plain wrong. Take care of all living things <3

  • shawn | December 2, 2011 11:54 AMReply

    Did it every occur to you that it's of the subject matter, not the quality of the footage that is important here? You say of the film in your review: "If you "MUST see it..." WTH? Why aren't you encouraging everyone to see it? This film is not about the cinematography. It's about education.
    The abuse heaped on Circus Elephants is a something everyone should know about.
    The miserable lives these creatures live in Zoo's, in something everyone should know about.
    What you do or do not like about a film is irrelevant.

  • Christopher Campbell | December 2, 2011 12:29 PM

    Subject matter alone does not make a film great. And even if I do think it's an important topic (I do, by the way), the film doesn't really seem that strongly tied to the cause anyway. It spends as much time celebrating zoos as it does celebrating sanctuaries. Anyway, it is about the filmmaking. Otherwise it's just a badly made PSA, which shouldn't be paid for. Maybe it's fine for people who watch OWN, which I think is encouraging the wrong aspect of documentary, but not for a theatrical audience.

  • Ben | August 9, 2011 6:21 AMReply

    I liked it. I didn't see it on the big screen so maybe I wasn't aware of (distracted by?) the visual flaws. Certainly not as strong a film as Project Nim (although structurally I thought that film had flaws too). I thought it quite subtly evolved from a 'don't humans and animals have the closest bond' story to a quiet critique of animal captivity.
    Pity - I'm a first timer to your blog and you had me agreeing with all your reviews until now...

  • Julia L. | June 11, 2011 2:10 AMReply

    Wow. I have to wonder if Mr. Campbell (the reviewer) and I saw the same movie. Not only did the film poignantly explore big questions about what is family, how one lets go of beings that are deeply loved (and as both parent and an adopted person, this film really hit home for me), and how one can atone for unknowingly damaging another creature, it also raises all kinds of issues about both the ethics of keeping wild animals in any kind of captivity, including zoos and circuses.
    The conflict between David, who raised Flora, and Carol, the woman who runs the Elephant Sanctuary, is hard hitting and heart breaking. I can’t begin to understand why this reviewer thought the movie was a PSA. Moreover, to mention David’s weight in such a mean-spirited way is reprehensible (without giving the plot away, David becomes ill as the film progresses).
    The visuals in the film are honest and beautiful and match the richness of this film. One Lucky Elephant is deeply engrossing; the audience I saw the film with seemed to love it. The bathroom line buzz (I’m a woman, and if you ever really want to know what an audience thinks about a movie, listen in on line to the bathroom) was extremely positive as people discussed their feelings on both the movie and all the issues it raised. This movie touched me so deeply, and I sincerely hope people ignore this review so that they can have a chance to experience One Lucky Elephant. (BTW, I thought the film’s title was meant in an ironical kind of way, not sure why the reviewer didn’t pick up on it.)

  • Ty | June 9, 2011 11:21 AMReply

    I have to agree with you - documentaries get too much praise these days, and all for the wrong reasons.

  • claire | December 13, 2011 8:04 AM

    I can't agree that David 'unknowingly damaged another creature'. Watching the way they tied Flora's legs together to make her 'lie down' I cannot fathom how any person could believe no damage could be done. David even expressed that he felt a bit of unease with the way she was treated initially but after she 'performed' immediately the third time (with much bullying) he felt she was smart......I felt she was beaten! Seriously, a well behaved child that gets beaten every day will quickly become smart. The film is important but I take no notice at all of Davids plight, he knew what he was doing and he had no regard for Flora as a baby. Anyone who spends years with an animal will end up with some affinity towards them, but anyone with real love for any animal would not do what David did.

  • Cora Moore | June 8, 2011 4:29 AMReply

    I don't totally disagree with your review. Flora is lucky because she is now living as wild as a captive elephant can in the USA. David Balding did hire lone elephant Dondi and her trainer for a season of his Circus Flora. She died last year of TB. I'm sure if it weren't for his health problems, he probably would try to get another elephant.

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