Man and His Beast: A Love Story of Sorts in One Lucky Elephant


The love story between David Balding and Flora, the 10,000-pound main attraction of Lisa Leeman’s temperate documentary, began in 1984, when the orphaned baby elephant from Africa became the namesake of the one-ring circus in St. Louis that Balding co-founded. One Lucky Elephant begins in 2000, the year the soft-spoken impresario decides to retire Flora from performing—she does a neat balance-beam trick—and find her a suitable new home. A safari camp in Botswana is nixed, as is the Miami zoo, where she attacks an employee. In 2004, after subdued, persistent pressure from Balding, the pachyderm is admitted into the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. And then, to the sound of too many mandolins, Balding’s biggest heartbreak begins: The sanctuary owner refuses his many requests to visit the animal he refers to as his “daughter,” insisting that it will trigger PTSD. Leeman takes this Dumbo mumbo-jumbo at face value while spending too much time filming Balding (whose girth over the years grows to rival that of his former charge) making pleading phone calls. Yet One Lucky Elephant, like My Dog Tulip and Nénette—two other movies about interspecies devotion and fascination that have recently played at Film Forum—admirably, and gently, raises questions about the folly and hubris of a relationship that may only ever be one-sided.