Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Flora’s Story: One Lucky Elephant

The expression says elephants never forget, but pachyderm post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) seems like a bit of a stretch. Yet, an ostensive expert makes that controversial diagnosis for one former circus elephant struggling with a difficult retirement in Lisa Leeman’s documentary One Lucky Elephant (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at Film Forum.

David Balding, the impresario of a small but imminently respectable St. Louis big top, adopted Flora the elephant to be the eponymous mascot of Circus Flora. For sixteen years, she enjoyed performing and by all accounts thoroughly bonded with Balding. Suddenly, Flora seemed to lose her enthusiasm for her act. Mindful Flora would most likely outlive him, Balding decided it was time for him to arrange Flora’s retirement. However, doing right by Flora will be a long, drawn-out, frustrating process.

Obviously, Balding did not want to pack Flora off to a zoo. Neither could he simply turn her loose in the wild. As his circus’s only elephant, Balding wanted her to reconnect with her own species, while maintaining the continuity of human contact. Lucky follows Balding as he spends years searching for the right pleasant pasture for Flora. Yet, just as soon as Balding entrusts Flora to a preserve he believes fits the bill, her new caretakers turn weird, using the dubious PTSD claim to ban his visits. It is not that he mistreated her. They simply argue anything stimulating her memory would be unhealthy. Huh, what?

Frankly, it seems odd the Oprah Winfrey Network selected Lucky for its doc club, because the film provokes skepticism for exactly the sort of pop psychology and repressed memory voodoo the Oprah book club used peddle. Evidently, they were more impressed with the film’s animal welfare implications, which of course are front-and-center throughout the film.

If nothing else, Lucky will convince the audience elephants are always potentially dangerous, despite their herbivore classification. Indeed, size matters when it comes to crushing smaller animals. It also reminds viewers good intentions are not always sufficient. Still, despite the presence of the photogenic Flora and the likably engaging Balding, Lucky comes across as a rather small story, more of a short or news magazine story than a full length feature.

Lucky is undeniably well meaning, just like Balding and the other humans appearing in the film. Nonetheless, it may very well be better suited to the small screen, Flora’s size notwithstanding. Primarily of interest to animal advocates, Lucky opens tomorrow (6/8) at Film Forum.