I never know what to say when I really, really want to recommend a documentary to people, especially people who don’t generally watch them. “Hey, I know you don’t like documentaries and all, but this one’s really great.” Convincing, right?
Then there’s The Elephant in the Living Room, a documentary with a title that is at once witty and completely unappealing, covering that one big topic on everyone’s mind: the problem of exotic animals in America. You’re just dying to see this now, I know.
So, as a reviewer who enjoyed this film so much that I watched it twice in a row, what else can I tell you to convey the fact that you need to see this documentary regardless of who you are? The best I can do is tell you that The Elephant in the Living Room is better than most of the films you’ll see this year, documentary or not.
No summary of The Elephant in the Living Room is going to properly encompass everything that this film offers to its viewers; it’s one of the very rare documentaries where every shot builds upon the last, adding additional layers of emotion and understanding that weren’t present mere moments before. While it may at one instant be intimating the sheer number of exotic big cats being kept by private owners in the United States, its tone shifts effortlessly to the emotional struggle of one owner of multiple lions who cannot overcome his love of animals that so blatantly don’t belong at his side.
The entire hour-and-a-half running time of the film moves back and forth between the stories of the animals themselves and the humans who keep them. Initially, the film feels as fact-heavy as any other documentary, suggesting that the film will rely more on instruction than emotion. This very rapidly changes.
The film’s second half begins to focus more and more on the humans themselves, centrally upon the efforts of Tim Harrison to rescue the two lions who have been raised from cubs by Terry Brumfield, a man who relies upon the animals to curb his depression and give his life purpose. The truly remarkable thing that the film does is constantly give you more understanding how of vital the cats are to Brumfield’s life just as Harrison’s struggle to provide a better home to them intensifies.
While it’s easy to recognize that exotic animal ownership in suburban towns of America is a problem, the film nevertheless changes the way you think about the problem. While exploring the legality of exotic pets may not seem like an exciting way to spend a Saturday afternoon, the film avoids the common list-o-facts pitfall even while it is essentially listing facts. By mixing in news reports, home video footage, and even 911 calls, every fact or statistic seems to have a story to support and illustrate it.
In fact, as a documentary, The Elephant in the Living Room can seem almost too close to perfect. The way that everything unfolds provides a once-in-a-lifetime story that really is stranger than fiction, and the many impressive shots throughout the film give a sense that director Michael Webber was really on his game. You may marvel at how coincidental some things are (such as an event late in the film that takes place on a significant birthday). The bottom line is that Webber took excellent advantage of a fantastic collision of two seemingly incompatible lives and made both sides appealing, touching, and entirely relatable.
While animal rights advocates will champion the message in this film, this really isn’t a documentary for them. The Elephant in the Living Room is a film for anyone who enjoys exploring lives and worlds that they would never otherwise experience and likely did not know existed. Those lives make the film irresistible; you cannot walk away from this movie without gaining the feeling that you’ll remember it forever. Its message about the bond between human and animal is as strong as its message about the need for stricter regulations surrounding exotic pet ownership, and both messages hit you hard.
Seek this film out. Regardless of your expectations, your perceived attachment to the topic, or your history with documentaries, The Elephant in the Living Room will connect with you. And if you’re still hung up about that latter issue, rest assured of this: the film is better than whatever documentary you’re comparing it to. Like the animals it depicts, this movie really is magnificent.
Geoff Henao: It’s a personal struggle of mine to watch documentaries, because I always feel that they’re too educational with no real emotional attachment to it. However, The Elephant in the Living Room is the perfect mix of facts and heart. Instead of being strictly informational, the documentary actually follows a loose narrative about a broken man and the love he has for his lions. I don’t think I’ve cared this much for lions since The Lion King. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, The Elephant in the Living Room might be the exception you have to make. 85 – Spectacular.
I was very conflicted while watching The Elephant in the Living Room. On one hand, it had such an interesting subject matter and the incredible luck of finding compelling characters to follow. Terry Brumfield’s story is sure to tug at anybody’s heart strings, and if it doesn’t then you possibly have no soul. On the other hand, the documentary has the sporadic narrative of a Dateline special with all the awful fixings to go with it: heavy-handed opinions presented as fact, obvious soundbites and quote unquote sensationalized undercover investigations. All of these elements might ensure a couple of scoffs and eye rolls and even run the risk of taking you out of the film. Regardless, The Elephant in the Living Room has enough heart to forgive its flaws and is definitely a documentary worth watching. Also, it has adorable baby lion cubs, and holy F’in crap are they cute. 77 – Good.