Disneynature’s third annual nature documentary, African Cats, is both more of the same and a bit different from the usual Disney nature documentary. Its flaws are glaringly obvious, but it its differences strengthen it. The parallel stories told involve two African cats: a lion cub dubbed Mara and a cheetah they call Sita.
Mara is the daughter of a lioness referred to as Layla, an older cat whose hard life has taken its toll; she will be unable to stay with her pride for much longer. Sita, a less socially inclined creature, is the mother of five frisky, mischievous cubs.
We meet Mara at the age of six months. She is playful and well protected by her pride – called the River Pride by our narrator. The pride is ruled by Fang, a ferocious lion whose last battle left him with a split tooth [the expression ‘you shoulda seen the other guy’ comes to mind]. As we follow Mara’s development – and Layla’s deterioration – the River Pride attempts withstand attempts by another experience male, Kali, and his four sons to take over.
As we follow Sita, and her even younger cubs, they face the dangers that surround them with amazing toughness – and Sita shows herself to be smart and resourceful.
Despite a cliché ridden script, by co-directors Alastair fothergill and Keith Scholey, that never gets the balance right between playing on the cats’ relatable human instincts and the differences between the animals and humans – and relies on clichés [‘stronger than ever,’ ‘now more than ever,’ ‘the power of a mother’s love,’ etc., etc.] over much – narrator Samuel L. Jackson somehow manages to make it work.
Like even the least effective Disney nature doc, the cinematography is spectacular. The Kenyan territory is astonishing in its beauty and few films have captured it in such detail. Even if every other element of African Cats had been awful, it would be worth seeing just for the cinematography.
As the filmmakers follow Sita, Mara and their families, there is an unexpected depth to be found in their journeys. Unlike other Disney nature docs, African Cats doesn’t shy away from the fact that, in this wild place, animals die every day. Though it still refrains from showing the grisliest moments of the hunt, or any animal clash for that matter, there are moments when death is as much a part of the film as the hijinx of Sita’s cubs – and moments when death is a huge part of their lives.
Of course, there remains the tendency to let the score do much of the heavy lifting, dramatically speaking. In places, the score is intrusive and overtly manipulative. You really don’t need to hear a plaintive cello, for example, after Sita’s family has a brush with a pack of hyenas. The drama of their life and death situation is more than enough to keep your attention riveted to the screen.
So, then, African Cats is a gorgeously shot film that delves deeply into the lives of two of the continent’s big cats – and their families – in such a way that clichéd writing, intrusive score and heavy-handed humanization do not prevent the drama and danger of their lives from shining through. It is, so far, the best Earth Day release from Disneynature and well worth seeing.
Note: stay for the closing credits. As they run on one side of the screen, on the other we get a series of stills featuring many of the other animals seen in the film – with faux film credits attached [for example: Hyena – Laughter Track].
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