A uniquely passive reminder of the dangers of showering exotic creatures with anthropomorphic affection, One Lucky Elephant effortlessly shuttles between unlikely love story, wildlife documentary, and character portraiture. This triad of genres is facilitated by a single subject: David Balding, a kindly, avuncular, whiskered circus master who, at the start of the film, seeks to retire Flora, an African Elephant he’s kept and trained for 16 years, to a comfortable, pachyderm-friendly space. His efforts first place Flora at the Miami Metro Zoo, but when she begins to exhibit curiously antisocial, and then outright aggressive, behavior, the search for a permanent home develops psychoanalytical demands. Despite, and partly as a result of, Balding’s devotion (as his wife notes, Flora was part daughter, part mistress), it’s revealed that the elephant’s anxiety-provoking life in the circus has necessitated a sanctuary that will not only provide basic comfort and privacy, but therapy as well.
Director Lisa Leeman herds us through Balding and Flora’s journey with unusual patience, allowing a collection of candid talking heads to act as confessional tour guides, and admirably anti-dramatizing—anti-anthropomorphizing, even—the few occasions of sensational violence. We infer, through interviews with workers at the elephant compound, that Flora’s tenure at the Miami Metro Zoo has become vaguely strained, but one zookeeper notes that “she seems to like” a new handler. Leeman then cuts from a ponderous close-up of Balding, who’s unclearly unsure of how he feels about this information, to a news broadcast cataloguing Flora’s attack on the new handler and the obligatorily stoic commentary from a zoo official in the aftermath. “[Elephant handlers] have to become part of the elephant family,” he says, widening his eyes as if to suggest that this is a cautionary tale for us and not him. “And there’s a hierarchy established.”
Later, an animal-enthusiast couple is allowed to ride Flora without Balding’s supervision or approval, and the results are similarly disastrous: The elephant, in a fit of stress, coils her trunk around the wife and hammers her into a nearby tree. This event, too, is imparted entirely through the victim’s sympathetic but, ultimately, un-empathic testimony. “I was in shock,” she says, her eyes misting and her arms tensing with the memory of old fractures and bruises. “I really loved her.” And it occurs to us what a meager offering the amorphous, human concept of love can be to a 10-ton animal that only desires a ritualistic existence without intrusion or molestation. But Leeman, rather than judging those that yearn for an impractically close encounter with these gentle giants, or those who exploit that whim, lightly suggests through the arrangement of these anecdotes that our admiration for certain animals encourages the forging of an illusory, hands-on rapport.
Which isn’t to say that connections between species are always a manmade fantasy. Room is eventually made for Flora at the Elephant Sanctuary, a nonprofit property in Tennessee that mimics as closely as possible the mammoth mammal’s natural habitat. But by then the buzzword PTSD has been dropped by progressive psychologists who’ve become aware of the high-profile elephant, and it’s suggested that Flora’s erratic personality is chiefly a reaction to the loss of a hitherto constant source of stability: Balding’s care. After reluctantly agreeing to not visit Flora any longer at the Sanctuary, Balding confronts with elliptically tragic testimony the abusive capture and dominance training Flora underwent in her youth, and we sense the throbbing of a raw nerve that Leeman has teased out from their relationship; the birth of their mutual respect was enabled by what is, in the circus industry, a de rigueur trauma. Flora’s obsession with her captor followed a kind of deflowering; Balding inflicted an unavoidable pain laced, futilely, with tenderness and understanding. But as Elephant Sanctuary co-founder Carol Buckley points out after forbidding Balding’s visits, “Now [Flora] just has to trust that others will love her.” And so One Lucky Elephant wonders, finally, if perhaps anthropomorphization isn’t entirely inappropriate or useless. We all need space to stamp out our fear of what hardship the universe is capable of providing us with.