Up Close and Personal

Imation IMAX theater
at the Minnesota Zoo

Throughout Africa's Elephant Kingdom, dozens of elephants, old and young, large and even larger, roam the African landscape for food and camaraderie, and the notion of a "family film" takes on several new dimensions. In the largest film size available, on a screen five stories high, the planet's largest land mammal can be seen up close and very personal, in a way that's both majestic and intimate.

Though the subject is nature, the subtext is family and survival. This focus should be welcome to parents who look for indoor diversions this summer; Africa's Elephant Kingdom wisely follows the best conventions of the IMAX film format by sticking with one topic and a few solid, basic concepts. While pachyderms are impressive enough, the subtext is even more welcome. For in the course of forty-five minutes (a typical length for this kind of movie), old and young alike will encounter compassion, endurance, competition, hunger, love, and playfulness--all without seeing a single human.

The IMAX format may be new to your kids; it's a relatively recent film format based on the age-old dream of seeing the world at such a large and close scale that the viewer feels a part of it. In technical terms, IMAX denotes a 70-millimeter wide filmstrip projected onto a flat screen (as opposed to the Science Museum's Omnimax concave screen). A single frame of IMAX film can hold sixteen frames of regular 35-millimeter movie film, so that means IMAX has sharper resolution even though it's being projected so large. IMAX cameras weigh over seventy-five pounds and can shoot only about three minutes at one time.

These facts and figures help to explain why an IMAX movie is different from, and possibly even more kid-friendly than, your average multiplex feature. The larger size image means "just watching" becomes a viable reason to make a movie, and the short time length of a single shot means that a finished film might have quicker and more frequent shot changes, which is probably just fine with a six-year-old's attention span.

Africa's Elephant Kingdom is a great example of how well this medium can work for all ages. The images swoop over, around, and right up to these behemoths and their stunning natural environment. The film is "narrated" by "Old Bull," a 57-year-old bull elephant, and follows a single family group through birth and death, and from the dryness of drought to the muddy fullness of rain. We are guided by the research and insights of Iain Douglas-Hamilton who has been studying and living around elephants in Kenya since 1972.

"Nature wrote the script. Elephants did the acting," says Douglas-Hamilton while on a late-spring visit to the Twin Cities. He spent several years preparing for this movie, and then six straight months on the "set" with its production crew. He promises that audiences will be surprised at "the combination of size and sensitivity" in his big gray neighbors, and confesses that for all his years of study "We've only scratched the surface of elephant consciousness."

One of the most touching moments in Africa's Elephant Kingdom is the scene of a mother trying to roll her dead baby back to life. As she prods at her fallen child, a completely unrelated family of elephants strides over and every member exchanges trunk caresses and sniffs, as in a round of soft handshakes at a funeral. Douglas-Hamilton promises that this is an extraordinary moment even for an expert. "I'd never seen that before--I would have never expected it to appear in an IMAX film."

Such tender sadness is balanced by many more scenes of eating, tree crunching, nursing, playing, and mud bathing. It's a lively movie. The sound and music tracks occasionally get too loud and intrusive, and might temporarily spook a very young viewer, but the overall feeling is inspirational as we watch elephants unite in clans built from family groups and led by strong matriarchs.

Phil Anderson is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent.

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