The Last Lions


The Last Lions

This lion just ain't gonna take no bull...umm, well if you look at it from a certain point of view, they actually ARE.

(2011) Nature Documentary (National Geographic) Jeremy Irons (narration). Directed by Dereck Joubert

Fifty years ago, there were nearly half a million lions in the wild. That number is down to somewhere between twenty and fifty thousand, depending on whose estimates you believe. Current estimates have the wild lion population disappearing, possibly within the lifetime of children currently living.

They are being driven out of their natural habitats by the movement of human expansion on the African continent. They are being hunted by farmers trying to protect their cattle from attacks by the big cats; they are also being crowded into places where their food supply is dwindling and where they are competing with other ferocious predators for game.

Irons’ narration tells the tale of Ma di Tau (translated as Mother of Lions in the local language), a wild lioness in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana. She is a single mother of three adorable cubs. Her territory has been invaded by a pride from the North, moving down due to human incursion. She and her mate are attacked; her mate is grievously injured and the mother and her cubs are forced to cross a crocodile-infested stream to get to Duba Island, a large grassy atoll in the river. In rainy season it can be wet and marshy; in the summers the river slows down to a trickle, inviting other predators to visit.

There’s also a largish herd of water buffalo that are the size of VW Beetles and twice as ornery. One in particular, the herd leader who is marked with a noticeable scar across his face, fears nothing or no lion. His horns are nightmarishly lethal, and without a pride to help her in the hunt, Ma di Tau is reduced to nearly suicidal frontal assaults before devising tactics made from desperation; she desperately needs the meat to feed her cubs and if she doesn’t feed them soon, they’ll starve.

Director Joubert and his producer/partner/wife Beverly live on Duba Island and have been naturalist documentarians for a quarter of a century – in fact, Disney used footage they shot to help guide their animators for The Lion King.

Their footage is phenomenal. We get as up close to lions so much so that we become part of their pride, privy to their daily routines and lives. Nature documentaries have a tendency to anthropomorphize their subjects – give them human qualities and traits. This one doesn’t quite resist the temptation, often musing on what Ma di Tau is thinking and feeling through Irons’ solid narration. However some of the prose he’s given to recite is a little bit on the purple side.

There is no sentimentality here. Lions act like lions and when their territory is invaded, a struggle to the death ensues and it is a bloody and savage one. Cubs, unable to fend for themselves, are put in danger and don’t always escape it unscathed. Lightning ignites grass fires; things are eaten by crocodiles or gored by water buffalo. In short, life on the savannah is a harsh one.

But there is also love and affection and while not as much of that is shown in the eagerness of Joubert to make his point about the dwindling population of the magnificent beasts it is nonetheless present, particularly in Ma di Tau’s fierce devotion to her cubs and her willingness to do whatever it takes to protect them. The playfulness is rarely glimpsed but it is glimpsed.

There is definitely a message here and it’s a somber one – the kings of the jungle are disappearing from the face of the earth. It is happening slowly, but when you consider that it only took half a century to kill off nearly 90% of the lion population in the wild, the urgency of their protection becomes clear. The film provides websites and text numbers for donations to an organization dedicated to protecting these big cats, and hopefully you’ll take advantage of them as well (you can get info on their website which you can access by clicking on the picture above).

As documentaries go, this is a solid one. It lacks the grandeur of DisneyNature’s Earth or the humor of March of the Penguins but it tells its story simply and effectively. It also sends its message clearly and that is all you can ask of a documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and narrated. Some of the up-close shots of the lions are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie pulls no punches in describing that it’s a jungle out there, even in the savannah; the faint of heart be warned.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of animals mauling and killing one another which might get the kiddies a little upset.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeremy Irons voiced the villainous Scar in Disney’s The Lion King.

HOME OR THEATER: Gorgeously photographed African savannah worth seeing in all its glory on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Hop

Oceans


Oceans

Underwater, turtles become sprinters.

(DisneyNature) Narrated by Pierce Brosnan. Directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud

The oceans are vast, covering nearly three quarters of our planet and yet humans have laid eyes on only 5% of it. It makes up the largest territory of our planet and yet what we know about what lives there is infinitesimal compared with what there is to know.

As our technology has evolved, so has our ability to study the creatures of our seas. Some, like the bottle-nose dolphin and the blue whale, are creatures who swim close to the surface and as a result, we’ve been able to study them at some length. Others exist at greater depths, or swim in places that are more difficult for humans to access. Even these remote places, however, are becoming more and more reachable with submersibles that can withstand greater pressures, high-tech scuba apparatus and underwater cameras that can take amazing footage.

This is the second in what is slated to be an annual Earth Day event by Disney’s nature documentary division (last year, they released Earth to much acclaim). While Disney is distributing these movies, it should be noted that both Earth and Oceans were made by documentarians in England and France, respectively and were financed and produced outside of the Mouse House.

Still, the images here are magnificent, from the stately blue whale migration to the antics of sea otters and dolphins, from the weird and mysterious spider crabs to the serene and beautiful jellyfish. There are orcas and sharks, to be sure, and gulls dive-bombing for sardines, clouds of krill and schools of yellowfin tuna. There are squid-like creatures undulating through the liquid world with scarf-like streamers trailing them like a Spanish dancer, and tiny eels dancing in a strange ballet on the ocean floor. There are beautiful clownfish darting in and out of the Great Barrier Reef and penguins in the Antarctic, clumsy clowns on the ice but graceful and sleek in the water.

In its own way, Oceans is a beautiful movie but I’m wondering if there isn’t a bit of overkill here. After last year’s Earth and the latest BBC/Discovery Channel epic nature documentary series “Life”, Oceans feels almost like too much of a good thing.

The other quibble is with the narration. Pierce Brosnan is a fine actor but he doesn’t make a great narrator; his voice lacks the gravitas of a James Earl Jones or even a Sigourney Weaver. In all fairness, the narration he is given to read isn’t very inspirational and lacked the humor Disney nature documentaries are known for.

Still, that’s not what you come to a movie like this for. You come for amazing images and to see things you’ll never be able to see with your own eyes. The way to approach a movie like Oceans is to let the images sweep over you, wash you away and take you to the deep blue. It is as alien a world as anything George Lucas has ever devised and yet it is on our doorstep.

Asking the question “What is the ocean,” as the narration posits at the movie’s beginning, dumbs down the movie. Unless you’re a very young child, you know what the ocean is and clearly Disney is going for parents with very young children. While young children will ooh and ahh over the pictures, they don’t have the attention span to last the entire 90 minutes of the film. The trick is to get the same sense of wonder from adults, which they do nicely. It then becomes unnecessary to talk down to the audience by asking them “What is the ocean” because the questions you want them to ask are “What more is the ocean” and “How can we help save it.”

There are sequences that are powerful, with a forlorn shopping cart sitting on the ocean floor (which led me more to wonder how on earth it got there) and garbage floating on the ocean’s surface sending the requisite ecological message which should have been stronger; a segment that showed species that are now extinct was excised for the American version. Perhaps Disney didn’t want children to dwell on the harsh realities, but then why show baby turtles being picked off by frigate birds if that’s the case?

The co-directors were responsible for the much-superior Winged Migration and to their credit to capture some amazing sequences, but quite frankly I wasn’t wowed. Oceans turns out to be less of an educational tool than a new age video, and to my way of thinking our oceans deserved a better movie.

REASONS TO GO: Some very spectacular and beautiful footage, as well as amazing behavioral mannerisms of creatures both familiar and unfamiliar.

REASONS TO STAY: Perhaps a victim of Earth’s success; didn’t stack up favorably. Brosnan’s narration didn’t carry enough gravitas.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect viewing for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Perrin narrates the French version; his son Lancelot makes an appearance as the young boy in the movie’s framing segments at the beginning and the end.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the magnificent footage should be seen on a big screen for full effect.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Express

Earth


A ballet of water, fish and seals.

A ballet of water, fish and seals.

(Disneynature) Narrated by James Earl Jones. Directed by Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield.

Our planet never ceases to amaze. With all the things we do to it, all the ways we abuse our trust of this fragile world, it still shelters and nurtures us. As much of it as we have explored and seen, it still manages to take our breath away, often unexpectedly. Earth is mostly footage from the Discovery Channel/BBC documentary mini-series Planet Earth with new narration from the great James Earl Jones. While some of the footage here is devoted to the world’s geography and plant life, the focus here is on the animals of our world.

Here we see polar bear cubs being helped by their mother on their first steps outside of their den, and then guided to the shore so that they may hunt – after initially heading the wrong way. Exhausted elephants trek across bone-dry desert, desperate for water and beset by predators preying on the weak. Birds of paradise strut their extraordinary plumage in an effort to attract a mate. Storks fly across the Himalayas, fighting treacherous air currents and exhaustion trying to migrate to warmer climates. Ducklings leap from trees attempting to fly for the first time – and plummet to the leaf-carpeted floor, not so much flying as Jones intones, as falling – with style.

There are shots of breathtaking beauty. The camera pulls back from a flock of birds to reveal that there are not dozens but thousands of birds in the flock. Schools of fish (sardines I think) are a living hurricane as they dance with seals and dolphins in a playful ballet (see photo above). An arboreal forest, covered with snow, thaws into spring blooms. Time lapse photography takes a forest from the green leaves of summer to the brilliant colors of autumn. There is also amazing poignancy. A polar bear, having to range farther and farther afield in a fruitless effort to find food, is trapped by the melting ice floes and must swim to shore. Completely worn out and starving, he is forced to attack a herd of walruses, whose tusks are lethal weapons. Failing to kill any of them, he slumps to the ground, dying while the indifferent walruses go on about their lives around him. It is the brutal side of nature encapsulated.

As is the wont with Disney’s nature movies, the animals are anthropomorphized to an almost silly degree. The trapped polar bear, for example, is named as the father of the cubs from the first scenes of the film, but it seems to me unlikely that the filmmakers could have possibly known whether that was true or not. It seems to be an unnecessary dumbing down for the sake of appealing to children. My experience is that children tend to love animals whether you give them human personalities or not. Disney perhaps should have checked with their Animal Kingdom staff on this point. Still, it’s a small complaint and easily overlooked.

The larger question is whether it is worth going to a theater to see footage that is available not only on cable (the Planet Earth series is re-run occasionally) and widely on DVD (on high-definition yet). The answer is a resounding yes. Some of the more epic footage is far more stunning on a big screen, and Jones’ narration is to my mind much more memorable than Sigourney Weaver’s narration – which is just fine, mind you – on the Discovery Channel edition (BBC viewers got to hear Patrick Stewart do the narration, although I haven’t heard his work on it to compare).

Walt Disney inaugurated his True Life Adventure series back in 1948, and the series of nature documentaries would continue for twelve years, garnering three Oscars for best feature documentary, as well as for the since-discontinued category of two-reel short features. Many of these were repeated on his Wide World of Color television program, and were staples in classrooms across the country in my formative years. This is the first of a series of nature documentaries that Disney intends to release on Earth Day in succeeding years (the next is Oceans in 2010) and given the challenges facing our climate, our environment, our world, the time is right for films to remind us just how precious this world is – and how important the life that resides upon it is as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular footage that constantly takes the breath away. This is as informative a documentary as I have seen recently, and has much more going for it than just the “wow” factor.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Much of the footage previously available on cable and home video. The animals are often anthropomorphized and “dumbed down” for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming of the documentary (including additional footage filmed exclusively for the feature) took place over 4,000 days, making it the most extensive documentary project ever undertaken.

FAMILY VALUES: Informative, educational, spectacular and full of cute furry critters, what kid isn’t going to love this?

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains some fascinating footage detailing how the larger Planet Earth mini-series was whittled down to this feature film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: X-Men Origins: Wolverine