Ordinarily, the release of a new nature documentary to a streaming service would make very few waves in the press. However, the new Disney+ doc Elephant is no ordinary release.
The wildlife documentary, produced under Disney’s Disneynature banner and released exclusively on Disney+ on 3 April, marks the first piece of media work undertaken by Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, since she and Prince Harry consciously uncoupled from the British Royal Family.
Meghan and Harry have not carried out any public engagements since 9 March, but the official date they stop being working royals is 31 March, so the timing of Elephant has been choreographed to perfection.
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The couple’s announcement in January that they wanted to step back from their roles as senior members of the Royal Family, and make their own money, came as a surprise to the British public.
It was reported by The Times in January that Meghan had signed a deal with Disney for a voiceover to in exchange for a donation to charity Elephants Without Borders. According to Press Association, it is understood that Meghan was approached by Elephant’s filmmakers last summer, who asked if she would consider recording the narration.
The film itself is fairly standard nature documentary fare. Filmed in Botswana and Zimbabwe, it tells the stirring story of African elephant Shani and her son Jomo as their herd makes a journey across the Kalahari Desert, led by their great matriarch Gaia. As you’d expect from a Disney doc, it’s a family-friendly, bloodless affair, but beautifully shot and not without moments of peril for the herd of elephants.
Meghan’s voice is not as familiar to the British public as say Prince Charles, or Harry himself, so her involvement may come as a surprise to casual viewers upon first watch. Her name is not invoked by the film until the closing credits where it’s listed as “Narrated by: Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex”.
Unsurprisingly for an actress with over 15 years of experience, her voiceover is confident and assured, and it brings to life the elephant herd’s story in an entertaining way. There are some delightful moments of exuberance, including a scene where an elephant breaks wind and Meghan cheerfully asks “oh, who did that?”
She seems to be having a lot of fun with the work, recorded by Jemma Riley-Tolch and Helen Miles at Pinewood Studios in London, but it’s almost impossible to ignore the rich context of the script (written by Mark Linfield and David Fowler) which, at times, seems cheekily on the nose given Meghan’s recent past.
Gaia, the elderly matriarch, leads the elephants with unwavering devotion to the survival of the herd: “Where she leads, the herd follows,” Meghan explains.
There’s talk of the herd’s sons leaving home to seek their own fortunes, and in one scene, where one of the calves gets stuck in some mud, the matriarch has to step in to save him: “she’s the only one who can help... this matriarch is a force to to be reckoned with!”
Gaia navigates the great plains using her “unbroken chain of memories” passed down from generation to generation “that stretch back a millennia”, and she passes on her experience through a line of succession in order to ensure the survival of the herd.
There’s an obvious successor for when Gaia finally falters, but the voiceover ponders: “do they have what it takes” to lead the herd?
We give it about 20 minutes from after the documentary hits Disney+ before some wag online edits her voiceover onto footage of the Royal Family at work as a spoof.
Regardless of Meghan’s voiceover, there’s a lot to enjoy in this educational documentary that’s sure to go a long way in helping the cause of Elephants Without Borders. And Meghan’s future as a voiceover artist, if that’s something she wishes to pursue, seems rosy too.
Elephant launches on Disney+ from 3 April, along with Dolphin, narrated by Natalie Portman.