Love & Bananas, at times, feels like a souped-up vlog. At other moments, it makes you want to run out of the theater and go hug an elephant. Unfortunately, the nearest zoo is 40 miles away from campus, which makes that a tad difficult.
The documentary follows actress Ashley Bell and elephant conservationist Lek Chailert on their mission to rescue a 70-year-old elephant, Noi Na, from a trekking camp. Bell’s narration introduces the audience to the largely unknown plight of Asian elephants. She, with Chailert’s assistance, details the horrors of human abuse toward the massive, yet gentle, creatures.
Graphic videos display the atrocities that are inflicted upon elephants and bubbly animations detail how crucial the animals are to the global ecosystem. Telling us that there are just 45,000 Asian elephants left in the world, however, is less poignant than seeing the ragged, torn ear of an abused elephant and the sadness in their soulful eyes.
Cornell Cinema chose to preface the documentary with an animation produced by alum Lynn Tomlinson, titled The Elephant’s Song. The short relays the true tale of Old Bet, the first circus elephant, from the point of view of a farmer’s dog. It was original as well as unique, and overall entertaining to watch. Tomlinson’s creative animation style, spreading clay on glass plates and manipulating it like thick paint, leads to beautifully vibrant scenes. According to Tomlinson, it takes three hours to animate one second of a final film. I was as amazed by her dedication and passion as much as I was by the animation. The Elephant’s Song did not, however, carry the same emotional influence that the feature documentary did. I mean, how profoundly moving can a clay animation set to song be?
Bell and Chailert rely on the weight of pathos to drive Love & Bananas. Each shot of a mutilated eye or bullhook scar elicited a pang of sympathy from me. Sentimentality and pity for the splendid creatures can only carry a film so far, though. Even at a mere 75 minutes, the documentary still feels a bit too long. If I had to guess, about 15 minutes were spent purely on the transport of Noi Na from captivity to the sanctuary. That’s the crux of the film, but watching a large, grey mammal slowly sway in a truck while the cast worries if she will faint (spoiler, she does) is not the most gripping entertainment.
I’m not often one for documentaries, so I concede that my appreciation of this art form might be ill-informed. Love & Bananas, while touching, comes across as being very amateurish. It opens on a helicopter ride above a depleted Cambodian forest. I assumed the film would center around saving an elephant from a habitat ruined by logging and other destructive human interference. Rather, the ruined woodlands are rarely referenced again. When they are, it is to discuss how elephants are used to better facilitate the moving of massive tree trunks.
Extended shots of people feeding elephants or herds playing in mud pits and rivers do little to further the plot and their repetition is largely superfluous. A sequence of a bunch of mahouts trying to force Noi Na into the truck takes up at least five minutes. The occasional interviews with a cast member are extraneous and add little to the content of the film.
The only prior experiences I have had with elephants are smelling their poop at zoos and that one odd scene in The Jungle Book (2016) where a herd marches through the jungle and the entire animal kingdom bows down to them. I didn’t like The Jungle Book, so my relationship with these creatures was relatively strained. About five years ago, I toured an animal sanctuary and ended up going vegan for three months. Seeing as I don’t actively eat elephant meat or adorn myself with ivory jewelry, I doubt Love & Bananas will have a similar effect on me. It certainly expanded my (albeit limited) knowledge of elephants and their all too common inhumane treatment. I’d have to be a cold-hearted jerk to fashion myself anything other than an elephants’ rights supporter after watching this documentary.
Jeremy Markus is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at jem476 @cornell.edu.