African Cats

African Cats

These African Cats are just a bunch of cheetahs.

(2011) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey

Nature can be a harsh mother, one whose life lessons are sometimes cruel and at other times beautiful. The world that the predator cats of Africa exist in is one that is exacting, but one in which the devotion of a mother is as fierce and beautiful as it is in the civilized world.

Layla is an aging lioness, a fierce hunter and mother to Mara, a female cub. She lives on the South bank of a river as part of the River Pride, presided over by its only male, Fang. Like Layla, Fang is a battle-scarred warrior who is beginning to show the signs of his age.

Sita is a fearless cheetah, one who is bringing up five cubs alone, as is the nature of cheetahs. They live on the Northern bank of the river. She is trying to teach her children the necessities of survival, something that is not always easy with children, especially when she has to contend with hyenas, a sometimes scarce food supply and also the lions of the region.

Kali is the father of three strapping young male lions. He rules the Northern bank of the river and now seeks to expand his territory south. He must bide his time during the rainy season as the river is crocodile-infested, but as the summer arrives and the waters recede, he moves south to take on Fang. At stake are the lives of the cubs, all of whom will be killed should Kali take over; he will then father new cubs with the lionesses. The battle for survival has begun.

As with the annual Earth Day DisneyNature documentaries, the animals are heavily anthropomorphized, the most of any of these documentaries yet. Jackson, in his spirited narration tells us what the cat moms are thinking, feeling and planning, giving them human responses to situations that might not mirror what a big cat is thinking, feeling or planning. Some of these emotions and thoughts that are ascribed to the felines can be extrapolated from their actions but others are most certainly all invention. I find that bothersome somehow, as if we’re being lied to – which is probably over-sensitivity on my part but still I can’t help feeling a little bit uncomfortable with it.

Certainly their maternal instincts are highly honed and when cubs are missing, they become obviously distraught; when the cubs are threatened, they fight like berserkers, claws and teeth savaging their opponents.

Like all of the DisneyNature documentaries, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. Aerial shots of the vast savannah, the river winding through it like a muddy ribbon, thousands of wildebeests migrating through the territory like ants. The close-up shots of the lions and cheetahs going about their business are nothing short of amazing – watching Sita at full speed, her muscles straining for every bit of speed is something any viewer is going to remember for a very long time. It is a kind of savage beauty that serves to further amaze us at the diversity of life on this big blue marble.

However, the harshness of life on the plains makes for a fairly depressing movie. Lions and cubs are horribly injured and killed; they shiver in the rain and bake in the sun. Some become little more than skin and bones as they slowly starve to death.

The temptation to compare this to National Geographic’s documentary The Last Lions is hard to resist. Both movies focus on lionesses struggling to protect their cubs and both feature amazing footage of lions (and in the case of African Cats, cheetahs as well) in the savannah. However, the Nat-Geo film seems to be more concerned with calling attention to the dwindling numbers of wild lions in Africa while African Cats seems more disposed towards telling a kid-friendly story, so you have to give a nod to the other film on that score.

However, I found the Kenya-filmed footage in African Cats more compelling and more spectacular thanks to Fothergill’s well-honed sense of scope. He has also filmed the documentaries Deep Blue and Earth and may very well be the best nature documentarian alive. It kind of winds up as a push.

Disney’s heart is in the right place, using Earth Day to release films about our natural environment and tell stories that are played out in it every day. I don’t really love their need to turn these beautiful creatures into characters as if they should be talking and singing in one of their animated features; the narration should be kept to a minimum in my humble opinion because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures like these are worth infinitely more, and those in charge of these wonderful documentaries would do well to remember that.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography of the majestic African plains and its inhabitants.

REASONS TO STAY: The storyline was too anthropomorphized and depressing.

FAMILY VALUES: There really isn’t anything that would cause a parent to give pause in allowing their children to see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An original song by “American Idol” Season Six winner Jordin Sparks, “The World I Knew” is played over the closing credits, as the various animals that appear in the movie are identified in a humorous way.

HOME OR THEATER: The big African vistas should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mercy (2009)

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