What It Is
The start of African Cats, another Disneynature documentary opening on Earth Day, is grand. The camera shows wide, dry plains in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve as Samuel Jackson narrates, “Every day in the heart of Africa, amazing true stories happen that no one ever sees.” While you may be anticipating that what you’re about to see will be new, in fact, the film shapes a “story of two mothers” to fit a formula.
These mothers, named for the film’s purposes, are Kali the lioness (who has one partly grown cub, named Mara) and Sita the cheetah (who has five babies, their eyes barely open as the documentary begins). Though their adventures are separate, they are equally harrowing and, on occasion, heartening. Each mother faces hunger, harsh weather, and assaults by other animals, and each confronts death. They are buoyed by interactions with their cubs, who grow larger and stronger every day. The film frames these experiences with dramatic music and sometimes florid language, as Jackson’s narration describes the cats’ seeming emotions.
As the film begins, Kali’s pride (several females protected by the aging Fang, who is identified by a loose tooth that hangs from his jaw) must seek out food once the herds of deer and zebras they usually hunt leave for “a year or more.” At a watering hole, the female lions are approached by hungry crocodiles, but Fang intimidates one of the reptiles back into the water and so saves his females. The pride is then beset by an unfriendly invasion by another pride (they’re coming from across a river, a large male and his four sons, who tend to travel as a pack and look very scary indeed). When she’s injured in a battle, Kali apparently makes plans for her impending death and Mara’s future well being.
Likewise, Sita contends with hunger, hyenas, and elephants as she tries to keep her cubs safe and teach them to survive on their own. Unlike lions, cheetahs live and hunt alone (the film does not indicate how Sita became pregnant with her babies). They are also the fastest animals on land for short bursts, able to reach 70 mph for up to 1600 feet at a time — and some extraordinary shots of Sita running reveal how fast she’s moving compared to her prey.
Again and again, the film draws parallels between the mothers’ devotions to their babies, as it also showcases how cute those cubs can be.
Why It’s Fun
The cinematography throughout African Cats is stunning. Whether the camera shoots from a long distance, displaying stretches of plains, hills, or sky, or the shots are close, on lions’ shoulders or jaw-lines as they make their way toward their prey, the imagery is outstanding — and unlike most other documentaries. Long tracking shots — that follow the cats as they walk slowly over what seems endless terrain — are especially unusual and breathtaking. It’s clear the filmmakers spent many hours setting up shots and filming.
The storytelling is less compelling, as it strains to make the animals seem like people. While this is common in “cute little animal documentaries,” this film follows a format made famous by March of the Penguins, where a movie star narrator tells a family-friendly story that footage seems arranged to illustrate — whether or not this footage accurately portrays the subject animals’ experience.
There’s no way to tell whether Kali can imagine a future when Mara will need to be looked after by Kali’s sister, Malika, and so behaves in a friendly manner to win over Malika’s good will. Still, the narration states that this is exactly what she’s doing, as if she’s manipulating her sister.
And again, when Sita loses some cubs to other carnivores, the narration insists she feels sad. When Kali is injured and nearing her own death, the scene cuts to a wide shot of ominous thunderclouds to indicate her internal state. Such impositions of human emotion onto the cats are more distracting (and trite) than convincing.
At still other moments, the narration lapses into clichés to make obvious points or pull together random events into a plot. After the cheetah cubs spend some time at play, Jackson observes, “Cubs will be cubs.” Or, when a couple of young male lions try to cross the river, Jackson says, “They are in over their heads in every sense.” Other phrasings are more like lessons: “Bullies can be bullied.” And one more time, he insists, in some overstatement, “There is no greater love than the love between a lioness and her cub.”
Who’s Going To Love It
Aficionados of nature films will respond in one of two ways. Those in search of spectacular imagery will be pleased. Others might feel uncomfortable with the anthropomorphizing of the cats — and elephants and hyenas and crocodiles — which seems not to trust viewers to understand that wild animals are in fact different from people.
And Sam Jackson fans might also find a few moments when his voice approaches the sorts of crescendos for which he’s famous, as when he describes the band of young male lions: “And they are still the most powerful force in the land!”
What To Be Aware Of
Parents should be aware that the G rating might be a bit optimistic. As careful as the film is to cut away from bloody scenes or to use metaphors instead of actual imagery (thunderclouds or circling vultures rather than an explicit death scene, for instance — though one lion does appear lying dead), these cats do hunt and tear up their prey, and this violence is visible, momentarily.
As well, the loss of children or a mother — especially as it is underlined here as a painful experience for Sita and Mara — might be worrisome for younger viewers.
The film also hints at the lions’ potential cannibalism, though of course it’s not a concept the lions would comprehend in a moral sense. The young male lions appear inclined to kill and eat Fang’s cubs in order to survive. Those younger members of the audience who catch this allusion might wonder about it.
5 out of 10
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson (narrator)
US Premiere: April 22, 2011
UK Premiere: October 21, 2011