Stream It Or Skip It

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Secrets of the Elephants’ on Disney+, a Typically Gorgeous and Informative Documentary Series

Where to Stream:

Secrets of the Elephants

Powered by Reelgood

Did you know that one of James Cameron’s informal titles is “National Geographic Explorer-at-Large”? It’s true – he’s an executive producer of Secrets of the Elephants (airing on Nat Geo, streaming on Disney+), a documentary series deep-diving into pachyderm life. Natalie Portman narrates, and elephant expert Dr. Paula Kahumbu is our on-screen “guide” for this Earth Day four-parter, which observes the behavior of elephants in four different regions. Gorgeous imagery is part-and-parcel to nature docs like these, but the modern wrinkle for them is the inevitable discussion of climate change and how it’s indelibly altering landscapes until the wondrous creatures on the screen are… well, you know. I can report that this series has more of the beautiful stuff than the depressing stuff, but the latter pretty much has to be part of the contextual narrative lest the series simply show us how elephants are goddamn amazing things. 


Opening Shot: Slow zoom over a beetle climbing over a desert landscape at sunset.

The Gist: Close up: elephant feet, with big, weird, misshapen nubbin toes. “These feet tell a story,” Portman says, but she doesn’t speak literally, of course, because as you probably already know, feet don’t have mouths. This bull elephant wanders alone across Namibia’s Namib Desert, which is one of the most miserable godforsaken stretches of eyeball-gougingly beautiful land on the whole damn planet: Temps peak at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it gets less than three inches of rain annually and when the precipitation finally hits, deadly flash floods threaten to drown everything in its path. There are about 150 desert elephants here, and Dr. Kahumbu tells us that they’re the exact same species as elephants on the savanna, but they’ve adapted so specifically to this environment, if you dropped a savanna elephant in the Namib, it wouldn’t last long at all. Harsh place.

So harsh, the elephants that are stuck here spend their days walking, walking, walking and walking some more, in search of water and shrubbery to snack on. That lonely bull? He’s spent 40 YEARS doing exactly that, covering about 50 miles a day. Occasionally, he gets to have sex with another elephant; not being an elephant, I can’t speak to whether all that hardship is worth getting to mount a lovely wrinkled lady elephant once in a while, but he keeps on keepin’ on. The females are a different story – they travel in packs, protecting each other and their young from predators (Portman: “Family is their fortress”). One just gave birth to a li’l baby elephant, and we watch as the tyke attempts to stand on her feet for the first time. And then the mother grabs the placenta in her trunk and whips it over her back for “an afterbirth shower,” although the rest of the elephants would rather bury it, worried that the smell might attract their hungry enemies.

As we watch, Portman makes sure we learn things: The lead mama of the pack has delivered four babies, which is an amazing feat – pregnancies last 22 months. Most babies don’t survive the first six months in the Namib; will the little female be the first desert elephant in eight years to make it past that benchmark? Climate change has rendered the dry season extra dry and therefore the elephants’ quest for water extra difficult. For that reason, the wandering bull doesn’t get to mate with any of the ladies in the pack, because taking care of offspring in this environment is more difficult than ever. Eventually, a rainstorm hits, and the elephants hastily clamber out of the riverbed as a wall of water rushes in. The Namib is an absolutely breathtakingly beautiful place, but it seems like almost anywhere else outside of the Moon or the Mariana Trench would be a preferable locale for elephants to live. Might I suggest St. Louis?

Photo: Disney+

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Secrets of the Elephants was preceded by the similarly amazing Secrets of the Whales, and will be followed by Secrets of the Octopus. Documentary films Elephant and In the Footsteps of an Elephant are already on Disney+. And frankly, none of these cinematographically stunning HD-era series would exist without Planet Earth.

Our Take: As a sucker for a good nature doc, and someone who hasn’t seen many about elephants, the debut episode of Secrets of the Elephants is wonderful. It’s informative, visually invigorating – the 180-degree overhead shot of the riverbed being flooded is a stunner – and transporting. You can lose yourself in its elegantly photographed landscapes (which, to use a cliche, are as lovely as they are unforgiving). It rigorously contextualizes the daily drama of desert-elephant life, without too much superficial cornball-documentary embellishments. And it doesn’t infantilize its subject via anthropomorphization, or go hard on the slow-motion climate-change disaster occurring around us, necessary as such commentary can be (David Attenborough/Netflix series Our Planet hit that topic hard). The other three episodes are about elephants in the savanna, Asia and the rainforest. Sign me up, please.

Sex and Skin: Again, our boy was denied for pragmatic reasons, so no elephant nookie, sorry.

Parting Shot: We goggle at the wavering silhouette of the lonely bull elephant as it wanders off, against the backdrop of a massive sand dune.

Sleeper Star: Dr. Kahumbu could use a little more screen time in the opening episode – her expert commentary would be preferable over the sometimes overwritten, overly dramatic voiceover narration.

Most Pilot-y Line: Portman on the elephants: “They’ve become as much a part of the desert as the shifting sands.”

Our Call: As usual, Cameron doesn’t put his name on any old thing. Secrets of the Elephants is vital viewing for nature-doc enthusiasts. STREAM IT.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.