In the era of YouTube, where amateur zoology is practised at the level of Cats That Look Like Hitler, this old-fashioned nature doc is refreshing in its very quaintness. The felines in African Cats - a pride of lions, a family of cheetahs - are the real raw deal, creatures of a jungle that turns today's predators into tomorrow's prey and that rewards the fittest with nothing more than a mere chance of survival. No doubt, life is tough in the wild but, this being a Disney flick, it's loving too and even comes with a kiddie-friendly narrative that's easy to summarize and hard to dispute. To wit: Mommy knows best, Daddy we're not too sure about, and always, always, beware of the hyenas.
That storyline is the product of infinite patience and clever editing, as the co-directors, BBC veterans Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill, have focused their lens on the Masai Mara preserve in southern Kenya. There, they locate the maternal stars of the show: Layla, an aging lioness with her young daughter Mara, and Sita, the indomitable cheetah, single mother of five newborn cubs. Layla belongs to the "River pride" ruled by Fang, a superannuated patriarch not just long but, these days, loose in the tooth. Across the water lurk the black-maned Kali and his quartet of grown sons, just waiting for a chance to ford the river, sidestep the crocodiles, do away with that old coot Fang, and, Shakespeare-style, claim the crown along with the kingdom.
Over on the second domestic front, Sita is all alone with less modest ambitions - to use her celebrated speed to bring down a juicy gazelle while trying to protect her progeny from roving packs of evil hyenas, not to mention a few male cheetahs who, clearly deficient in paternal instincts, look to be up to no good. So the twin yarns intermingle throughout and are helped along by the voiceover narration of none other than Samuel L. Jackson, whose unmistakable tones add a further, albeit unintentional, element of drama to the tale. From Jackson, the master of Pulp Fiction lingo, audiences are unaccustomed to hearing the word "mother" without its six-letter suffix, and so we keep waiting for him to slip up - how the suspense mounts.
To be sure, Mother Nature does display her violent side, although the directors are careful to honour the Disney code and protect youthful eyes. Consequently, they show enough to prove to the kiddies that lioness mommies are artful hunters awfully good at putting meat on the table, yet not enough to rub any impressionable minds in the ultimate fate of that unfortunate zebra. As for those bullying hyenas, they do their dirty work off-screen - in the cruel world, some things are better left to the imagination, or maybe just on the cutting-room floor.
On the loving side of the equation, there's much cuddling and nuzzling and maternal loyalty and filial gratitude. Yes, matters do tend to get anthropomorphically cutesy on occasion. Happily, a constant redeeming grace is the camera work which, like the bifurcated story, works on alternating current, switching between vast panoramas and extreme close-ups. The aerial views are glorious - migrating herds spread across the plains like a giant darting organism, a setting sun that stains the horizon blood red, massive storm clouds gathered like a dark premonition. Even more impressive are the tight shots - the rain-drenched neck of a shivering lion, the pads on a paw, the twitch of an ear, the rippled grace of a cheetah at top speed in full muscular stride.
The high-def technology doubles as a natural revelation and a visual treat. As for the drama, the real animal world, unlike Disney's animated versions, has a way of watering down a climax. For example, like every brave king of the jungle, a cartoon Fang would have faced his foes, those invading pretenders to the throne, and served up a roaring action scene. Sorry, but the real Fang, calculating the odds, forgoes the movie valour for a lesson in hard-earned discretion. Remember this, children: If survival is the name of every species' game, better to be a cowardly lion than a dead fool.
- Directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill
- Starring lions and cheetahs
- Classification: G
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