Each year around Earth Day, audiences across the country are sold a light, fluffy nature doc, often featuring cuddly pandas and narrated by John C. Reilly or Tina Fey. However, not all of them have such a cheery outlook. Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story, though firmly preaching the gospel of hope, shines a light on the horrors facing these majestic creatures being captured in Southeast Asia.
After being so inextricably touched by the plight of our four-legged friends, director and on-screen personality Ashley Bell decided to travel to Thailand to raise awareness of the harsh conditions that await elephants in captivity, particularly those who go on to become circus performers. Once there, Bell, with the aid of conservationist Lek Chailert, embarks on a cross-country trek to give a blind 70-year-old elephant her freedom.
“…travel to Thailand to raise awareness of the harsh conditions that await elephants in captivity…”
Despite having the noblest of intentions, the film relies on such a strange hodgepodge of tones, swinging wildly between morose and twee with very little connective tissue between the two. In the same breath, as it presents child-friendly animated graphics, we are subjected to the introduction of elephants reaching their breaking point as they are tortured relentlessly in the “crush box.” The gut-wrenching abuse is then followed by an ill-timed fart joke. Bell would have better served her goal if she had leaned heavily into one of the tonal extremes, or at least done the legwork necessary to bridge the gap between worlds.
To make matters worse, Love & Bananas has absolutely no faith in its audience. Through perpetual voice-over narration, a manipulatively melodramatic score, and an overreliance on corny slow motion, the documentary is constantly strong-arming the viewer into latching onto specific disingenuous emotions. The image of blood-thirsty wranglers violently beating a blind elephant should be engaging enough to elicit a response on its own; we don’t need everything spelled out for us. First-time filmmaker Ashley Bell has yet to discover the value of showing rather than telling and, as a result, her debut fails to craft a cinematic atmosphere.
“…has absolutely no faith in its audience…”
It’s at times a heart-warming tale and it certainly comes from a place of ethical accountability, but Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story barely skims the surface of its subject matter. It feels more like a breezy episode of a run-of-the-mill nature show than a stirring call to action. A heavily padded 77 minutes, it may as well have been a 30-second TV spot for Inter-Nation Cultural Foundation. At least then, there would undoubtedly be less scatological humor.
Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story (2018) Directed by Ashley Bell. Written By Ashley Bell, Fernanda Rossi, and John Michael McCarthy III. Starring Ashley Bell, Lek Chailert, and Noi Na.
5 out of 10