This movie is not terrible. I realize that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but Holiday in the Wild has all the hallmarks (pun very much intended) of being the kind of rom-com that is not at all my cup of tea. It’s written by Neal and Tippi Dobrosky, whose credits seem to exclusively include Hallmark movies and some episodes of When Calls the Heart (a very much loved Hallmark Channel show that I could not get into). I fully respect how for many people the whole Hallmark ethos is comforting and fun, but, as I’ve said before, it’s just not usually my thing. But this Hallmark-ish movie also has Kristin Davis, Rob Lowe, and (most importantly) elephants. Lots and lots of elephants! (It also has some very problematic elements, which we’ll get to later.)
The first few minutes of the movie establish pretty much all the things you need to know about the characters. It is August (even though there is a shot of cherry trees blooming, which, even with climate change, most certainly do not bloom in New York in August) and Kate (Kristin Davis) is (gently) forcing her son and husband into a photo shoot for their Christmas cards (complete with a decorated tree and sweaters). Obviously, this is so that we know she is an organized, structured (and probably a little rigid) loving mother and attentive wife. (And also so that Netflix can cram some Christmas visuals into both ends of the movie.)
Next, she has lunch with her friends, where she expresses her concerns about how to fill her time after her son Luke (John Owen Lowe) leaves for college the next day. One of them casually suggests that she goes back to being a vet (and this becomes super important later on) or just not reenter the workforce. (Can you do that? Just pick up a veterinary career after eighteen-ish years away?) The other friend suggests that she doesn’t need to worry about it because they are just “ladies who lunch.” Kate gasps and says, “Don’t ever call us that again!” So now you also know she’s not like the other ultra wealthy (and maybe vapid) women. (And also that she’s not her character from Sex and the City.) In the next scene, when her son leaves for college, she frets about whether he will remember to eat (What?!? Of all the concerns.) and forces him to let her measure him one more time, which is odd since according to the wall she last measured him in July. And it’s just generally bizarre, but it’s a whole thing in the movie with the elephants, but it’s also really not worth explaining. (I would like to point out that she measures him so poorly that I have difficulty trusting anything else this movie says. The mark she makes is at least a full inch above his carefully tousled hair.)
Literally seconds after the door closes behind Luke—who is only carrying a single duffle bag and his keyboard, because that’s definitely what leaving for your first year of college looks like, especially when you have enough money to buy small countries—Kate surprises her husband with a second honeymoon “to Africa” and—BLAMMO!—he tells her that he’s moving out. “We had a lot of good years,” he tells her. (Which is something you would say to a dog before putting it to sleep.) So we know that’s about the last we’ll be seeing of his blandly handsome face. I hope you didn’t get too attached!
Can we just talk about this for a second? Who dumps their spouse seconds after their only child leaves for college? Let her sit on the couch first at least. I’m all for the Wall Street vapid, egotistical partner trope, but that’s like super villain level of evil. I don’t think it was intended as a comedic moment, but I snorted. Also, who surprises their partner with a trip to another continent? Especially when it’s just been established that he can’t even stop working long enough to take a few damn photos in front of a fucking Christmas tree? Also, are they touring the entire continent of Africa? Because it’s made up of 54 countries and 11.73 million square miles, so that’s a lot of second honeymooning they have ahead of them. Not even Meghan Markle and Prince Harry managed to fit in all the countries on their recent royal tour of Africa, and it’s their fucking job to tour the continent. (Actually, one of my (many) theories on why characters in the movie exclusively refer to the general Africa, rather than a specific country, something that drives me entirely batty, is that the movie was filmed in both South Africa and Zambia and so they had to keep the references neutral. Or because they assumed viewers were too dumb to understand. It’s really an either/or situation with that. And given that in Hallmark movies every prince is from a made-up eastern European-sounding country where they just happen to all speak English, I guess I should be happy they didn’t have the whole thing happen in a made up place with an African-sounding name.)
(And, while I’m already on a tangent, what do you think things were like in the Lowe household when Rob and his son John found out they were cast in the very same movie? They must have been so shocked and excited! And what a pleasant surprise that the extremely minor character of the college-aged son ends up having several extended scenes in the movie? Madness! And THEN to find out that John Owen Lowe’s character plays piano just like he does! And THEN that wants to be a (mild spoiler, but not really) musician just like John Owen Lowe does! I mean, what are the chances, really?!? None. The chances are none that any of these things were a coincidence, and not due entirely to a huge amount of privilege and nepotism.)
Back to the movie! Kate throws her husband’s things onto the street, decides to take the trip by herself, and arrives in Zambia where, upon seeing the honeymoon suite, swigs champagne straight from the bottle. Drama! You should know that this is about the highest level of drama reached in the movie. It often feels a little like the cast (and the script itself) took a half a Klonopin with a Xanax chaser.
Anyway, just by chance she meets Derek (Rob Lowe), who is ruggedly unshaven and has his sleeves rolled up to expose his forearms. (Why are exposed forearms so sexy, anyway?) He, of course, immediately rubs her the wrong way and he, obviously, thinks she’s uptight. Is there really any kind of love that matters other than the Opposites Attract kind of love? (Cue the Paula Abdul music!)
Rob Lowe and Kristin Davis together really are pretty charming, and they (along with the elephants, which I promise are coming soon) are really what makes this movie work. I don’t think they have any sexual chemistry per se, more like two old friends giving each other a hard time kind of chemistry, which for this kind of chaste movie works very well because you’re sure as shit never going to see them do more than kiss once or twice. Oh, I’m sorry, did I spoil things by suggesting they might get together? I’m joking! You knew they were as fated to end up together as I was to end up watching this movie. Kristin Davis (as we know from Sex and the City) does a great job of playing a somewhat uptight, but still very good-hearted, wealthy New Yorker. And Rob Lowe (as we know from pretty much anything starring Rob Lowe) is extremely well-suited to the role of handsome, somewhat Emotionally Unavailable™, and charmingly irksome man.
The morning after their snippy first meeting, it turns out that SURPRISE! Derek is the pilot who will be flying Kate to some luxury lodge where she’ll go on a luxury safari, presumably with luxury people. Along the way we learn that, in addition to being a romantic comedy, this movie is also a PSA for conservation (or maybe it’s the other way around), which is fine with me, really. (And maybe the general goal of raising awareness about the importance of animal conservation is another reason characters refer to the place solely as Africa. Kristin Davis, for example, has done a significant amount of work with and fundraising for an elephant orphanage in Kenya. So it would make sense that she would want to keep the country references a little vague.) During the flight, we get to see some beautiful shots of the countryside while Derek, wearing aviator sunglasses and a stoic expression, educates us about native animals. And the fact that Kristin Davis manages to look surprised when Rob Lowe tells her that humans are the most dangerous animal around is a real testament to her acting capabilities. Later on he says, “Elephants can read your soul.” Reader, my eyeballs fell out because I rolled them so hard.
Along the way they make an unplanned stop so that Derek can call in help from a nearby elephant sanctuary (where he just happens live) to rescue a baby elephant orphaned by poachers. (And fine, yes, at this point I will admit to being a vaguely attracted to Derek, his rolled up sleeves, his scruff, his emotional unavailability, his unflappableness, and his compassion for animals.) In the midst of rescuing the elephant, Kate blurts out that she’s a vet (with no prior elephant experience and probably not even a current license) and convinces Jonathan (Fezile Mpela), the head of an elephant sanctuary, that instead of going to the luxury lodge she should go to the rustic elephant sanctuary to take care of the baby elephant. I wish I could have been in on the meeting where people were like, “How can we make it realistic that Kate ends up at this elephant orphanage? I know! Let’s make her a vet who hasn’t practiced in almost two decades and doesn’t know a single thing about how to care for elephants! That’ll add some real verisimilitude to the whole shebang. And, while we’re at it, let’s give that undiscovered Lowe kid another unnecessary scene!”
In terms of the plot, you can probably mostly guess what happens next. Kate accidentally sees Derek with his shirt off.
Kate falls in love with taking care of the elephants (at which she is a natural, obviously) and has messy hair while still looking perfectly beautiful. Derek and Kate have “moments.” Derek has an artistic side. (Please watch it just to see his artwork.) Derek is a Widow Not a Womanizer. (A man categorically cannot be both in this kind of movie.) A not-very-nice-at-all, very well-dressed blonde woman, who works for the foundation that funds the orphanage, shows up unexpectedly. Derek tells Kate that his relationship with the mean blonde woman is “complicated,” which I’m pretty sure just means that in order for the orphanage to continue to be funded, Derek and the blonde woman have to bang on a regular basis. (This is an unexpectedly dark plot twist.) There are misunderstandings, miscommunications, and near-misses with financial ruin. Kate wonders if she should return home. Kate never runs into issues related to getting or overstaying a visa in “Africa.” Finally, Kate finds her True Purpose™, Derek finds his True Emotions™, and maybe, just maybe, they find True Love. And there is some Christmas stuff shoved in at the end like an afterthought. That part comes complete with a reference to how at the elephant orphanage “they celebrate [Christmas] all week and there is no shopping involved.” I honestly don’t know how to even begin unpacking that one, and it’s harder still because my eyeballs fell out again from the violent rolling.
What you might not expect is how much time is spent focused on elephants, their intelligence, their importance, what they need for care, how they’re released into the wild, and the horrors of the ivory trade. They are an unexpected and welcome supporting character. Is it heavy handed? Absolutely! Is it sometimes confusing? For sure! But it might also raise some awareness, so I’m ok with it! And yes, for me there are way too many obnoxious parallels made between letting elephants reenter the wild and letting human children find their way in the world (gag), but I was mostly willing to put up with that for all the glamour shots of giraffes, elephants, and rhinos.
It’s pretty obvious why the entire premise of the movie is problematic: A rich white woman goes to Africa to find herself and manages to save not just one baby elephant, but an entire (pre-existing) elephant orphanage. Black African characters are consigned to supporting, more one-dimensional roles (though I would argue that none of the characters are very two-dimensional), where their well-timed, wise words help guide the white characters toward their ultimate success. But, at the risk of sounding like an apologist, within that problematic framework, I do think the movie tries hard to be respectful of the culture and the people. In fact, Kate is thrilled with everything—from sleeping on the floor, to the wildlife, to her tent, to (and this is important) the traditional food she is served. It was a huge relief that there aren’t any moments where the joke is based on cultural misunderstandings or at the expense of another culture’s foods. I think I would often find Kate’s kind of enthusiasm grating but, in this case, I think it’s sending an important message. Plus, Kristin Davis is very earnest about hoping the movie helps to raise awareness and financial support for very real elephant orphanages. The movie was filmed in South Africa and Zambia instead of, say, Vancouver, so…Points for that? And they made a lot of effort to protect the elephants during the filming of the movie (which they did at actual orphanages). They did not use trained elephants and they observed strict rules for animal welfare. Netflix essentially made very realistic elephant puppets that stood in for the real thing during much for the filming.
Is this a low bar? For sure. Is it a higher bar than a lot of movies aim for? For fucking sure.
So, look, if you’re in the market for a schmaltzy, largely chaste, Christmas-adjacent romantic comedy—and who doesn’t need an injection of schmaltz every now and then?—with a gently educational nature documentary tie-in, and you’re willing to watch it in spite of its colonial/white savior undertones, you could do worse (probably much worse) than this one.