(2011) (Documentary) (G)
Otherwise, use the following link to read our complete Parental Review of this film.
- QUICK TAKE:
- Documentary: Two mothers, one a lioness, the other a cheetah, try to raise their young on the African savanna, a land filled with various perils, predators and foes.
- On the African savannah two mothers of the big cat family are trying to raise their young. On the south side of a crocodile infested river is Layla, the oldest lioness in a pride ruled by Fang, so named for the broken tooth hanging from his mouth. He protects the females from any number of dangers, including those crocodiles, the latter of which have kept rival lion leader Kali and his adult sons from crossing over from the north side.
They, hyenas and other predators pose a danger to the offspring of Sita, an otherwise solitary cheetah. While she does her best to protect them, she must hunt, thus leaving them exposed, while Layla has it a bit easier with her one cub, Mara, due to having the support and protection of her pride. But with the river level dropping, it's only a matter of time before Kali decides to cross over into her land.
- OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
- Some may think that anthropomorphism -- the assigning of human traits to non-human animals or even non-living things -- is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it's been done for many millennia. One of the oldest reported cases is that of the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, an ivory sculpture featuring a human figure with a lion's head that's estimated to be more than 30,000 years old.
While adults will do it with their pets and even natural phenomenon (giving hurricanes names or saying something like "It was an angry-looking storm"), kids are the masters of that. They just do it naturally with their stuffed animals (and other toys), so it's no surprise that fiction aimed at them followed suit.
That's especially true in terms of cartoons and movies targeted at kids that feature talking animals. Disney has made a fortune doing that for decades, with one of their most famous and memorable offerings being "The Lion King" from back in 1994 (and later reincarnated as a Broadway musical). They also have a history of anthropomorphizing animals in documentaries, going all of the way back to those True-Life Adventures from the late 1940s through early '60s where the narrator would attach human characteristics (in terms of behavior, motives and such) to the animals seen in the wildlife footage.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the trend continues in "African Cats," the third film under the Mouse House's Disneynature line. Following in the footsteps left by "Earth" (in 2007) and then "Oceans" (in 2010), this flick focuses on two forms of large-body felines living on the African Savanna, and specifically two such mothers trying to raise their young.
One is a lioness with a lone cub, both of which live within a pride dominated by a male named for the tooth hanging from his mouth. The other is a cheetah, all on her own to raise her five cubs and protect them from hyenas and other dangers, including another male lion that's looking to expand his territory over that of the first lion and the females under his keep.
Filmed on the Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya, the pic is nothing short of gorgeous to behold. The photography is quite simply amazing any way one views it, be that aerial footage looking down, tracking shots following the cats during the chase portion of the hunts, or especially in the close-ups of the animals themselves (a favorite among directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill seems to be that of the undulating, fur-covered shoulder blades -- shot so close on more than one occasion that it almost looks like some form of moving modern art).
As in the rest of real nature, it's all about survival of the fittest or most resourceful as well as perpetuating the species, and all of the critters shown here -- that also include crocodiles in the river separating the two mothers and rival lions, hyenas, hippos, elephants, wildebeest and even some warthogs (Hakuna Matata, anyone?) -- really do live in such close quarters. All of which means the filmmakers probably didn't have to go far to capture the daily life and death aspects of such life in the wild.
But one has to wonder -- as is the case with pretty much every documentary -- exactly how much of the "story" has been manipulated to make things play out for the greatest dramatic effect. For instance, when some rogue cheetahs arrive with an apparent appetite for cheetah cubs and all hope seems lost, an elephant then arrives and chases away the would-be predators. While it's certainly possible that really happened, one can't help but think a little bit of editing might have been at work there.
Of course, that feeling arrives hand-in-hand with the overriding narration that steers the film's "plot" and drives home the very heavy-handed anthropomorphism that permeates the entire picture. Granted, a good way of educating kids about such matters half-way around the world is to get them engaged. The quick and easy method is to name the animals, have lots of cute cubs, and mix moments of peril with play, all described in very identifiable and human-like ways by the narrator (Samuel L. Jackson).
I'm guessing many a kid will be fully enraptured and engaged from start to finish, with some of the moments perhaps being a bit too intense for younger eyes and minds, especially with the danger amped up by the narration and added music. On one level, there's nothing wrong with that as the same occurred in "The Lion King" and other films of its ilk. On another, however, this is creating something of a falsehood about how such wildlife things play out (while a lion may make a second attempt at taking over another's territory, it's unlikely he's operating with vengeance in mind as described here).
It's not enough of a problem to ruin the film, and most kids likely won't even notice or pay any heed if they do. For adults, however, all of the narrated and possibly manipulated "drama" might end up applied a bit too thickly for some tastes. Even so, the gorgeous on the ground (and in the air) footage makes one (mostly) overlook such issues. And once the movie arrives in the home on TV, DVD or Blu-Ray, one could simply turn the volume and let the old peepers enjoy the visual show. "African Cats" rates as a 6 out of 10.
Reviewed April 6, 2011 / Posted April 22, 2011
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