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Movie review: 'One Lucky Elephant'

A crusty circus owner struggles to find a home for an African elephant named Flora in Lisa Leeman's documentary.

June 24, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • David Balding, right, and Flora, in a scene from "One Lucky Elephant."
David Balding, right, and Flora, in a scene from "One Lucky Elephant." (Raffe Photographer Inc. )

Be careful what you wish for. Especially if you wish for an elephant.

That would appear to be the message of "One Lucky Elephant," an unexpectedly intriguing new documentary. Except that the poignant story filmmaker Lisa Leeman tells is too complex and open-ended to fit neatly into any kind of obvious statement.

The African elephant in question is Flora, the namesake of Circus Flora, a small one-ring establishment based in St. Louis. The circus' crusty owner, David Balding, had wanted an elephant his entire life before acquiring Flora when she was just an orphaned baby.

"One Lucky Elephant" opens 16 years later, in the year 2000, with Balding wondering whether he's made "a mistake taking this elephant's life and merging it with mine."

That's not because Flora has matured into a huge 10,000-pound adult that eats 450 pounds of food per day. And it's not because the two don't get along: After so much time together, there is clearly an emotional bond between Balding and Flora.

The problem rather begins with the fact that Flora doesn't seem to enjoy performing anymore. Added to the point is Balding's realization that Flora will likely outlive him by decades and that elephants, as social animals, are presumably happier being with their own kind.

But though Balding is intent on retiring Flora to give her a better life, as we watch that decision play out over the nine years the film covers, it is clearly something that is simpler to settle on in theory than to actually put into practice.

Balding's first plan, to return Flora to Africa in general and to a safari camp in particular, falls though in part because he gets cold feet about being so far away should anything go wrong.

It's at this point that the film's producers, Cristina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzheim, became involved in trying to find a home for Flora, even founding a nonprofit to raise funds to help relocate the beast.

So off Flora goes to a series of homes, including the Miami Metro Zoo and a refuge in rural Tennessee called the Elephant Sanctuary. But placing her happily anywhere turns out to be a problematic proposition.

For one thing, elephants, like humans, are tricky individuals, and Flora, who has spent a lifetime with only humans for companions, has to learn to share space with other elephants that bring their own dominance issues to the table.

Also, as "One Lucky Elephant" progresses, we learn that Flora's personality is more of an issue than is presented at first, that Balding may have been and may continue to be in denial about his protégé's temperament.

Even more intriguing is the unavoidable notion that as humans it is simply not for us to know what goes on in an elephant's mind. How affected are these animals by the physical pain of being trained or by childhood trauma? Can they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder? What can trigger that if they can? All these questions are raised and, quite appropriately, left open.

"One Lucky Elephant" presents Balding as a truly torn figure, willing to do anything that is in Flora's best interests, but being unable to be sure exactly what those interests are. Clearly, taking elephants from the wild is a more fraught situation that the people doing the taking ever consider.

A lucky elephant, this film posits, just might be the one that has managed to avoid human contact.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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