Feb 1, 2013

The Great Elephant Escape

In The Great Elephant Escape (1995), bratty fourteen-year old Matt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes on safari in Kenya, where he begins a sniping, argumentative relationship with Jomo (Frederick Tocumboh M’Cormac). When a baby elephant named Ellie “falls in love at first sight” with Matt, Jomo feels slighted:

Matt: Don’t be jealous, dude. Girls love me.

Jomo: I’m not so sure how I feel about you.

Matt codes his bond with the elephant in romantic terms in order to present himself as aggressively heterosexual (“girls love me”), but Jomo’s response suggests a homoerotic dynamic at work: he is saying, in effect, “Girls may love you, but I’m not sure if I am in love with you or not.” He thus codes his relationship with Matt in romantic terms, a tactic repeated several times during the movie: when they argue and Ellie becomes upset, for instance, he says “we shouldn’t fight in front of the child,” presenting himself and Matt as parents.

The three head out for the bush when a boorish, sadistic Texas businessman buys Ellie, but they had good reason to leave anyway: Matt is upset at his divorced Mom for smooching up the hunky tour guide, and Jomo’s father is constantly berating him for being unmanly. In search of an elephant herd to adopt Ellie, they have predictably picaresque adventures, with lions, hyenas, spear-carrying Maasai (who are actually quite friendly), a jailbreak, an exploding car, and an elephant knocking over tables at a ritzy outdoor restaurant. Jomo consistently codes their relationship as romantic (and volatile): during an argument, he shouts “I never want to see you again!”, the sort of thing one says to a boyfriend, not to a buddy, and he makes the supreme sacrifice, selling the necklace passed down from his ancestors so Matt won’t have to part with his expensive American watch.

But Matt won’t accept the gay subtext: he allows no touching except during arguments, no hugging, not even when they ride the elephant together. When a tiger threatens Terry and Raji in Maya, they hold hands, but when a lion threatens Matt and Jomo, they run off in different directions. At the end of the movie, after Ellie has been adopted by an elephant herd, Matt gives Jomo a harmonica, rather a lackluster sort of offering, and then asks his mother if they can return to Africa next year to visit Ellie. His relationship with Jomo was obviously tepid and expendable. The final shot shows Mom, hunky tour guide, and Matt all hugging, with Jomo (left, recent photo) nowhere in sight.