Fluffy fairy tale for animal lovers offers great visuals, lame story.
More Milo and Otis than March of the Penguins, White Lion is a family-safe film about African lions that’s pretty to look at but has the plot density of your average episode of an MTV reality show.
Director Michael Swan and writers Janet Van Eeden and Ivan Milborrow have crafted a pretty fluffy fairy tale for the four-legged kind. A carnivorous mammal wish fulfillment movie, White Lion follows a rare white lion cub as it grows up in Africa — eventually becoming a powerful and revered player in African folklore.
Unlike March of the Penguins, White Lion is in no way a documentary. The film was scripted, storyboarded and planned before any footage was shot. Through the use of well-trained lions and sparsely used animatronics and computer effects, White Lion‘s filmmakers have made a visually stunning movie that unfortunately lacks ambition in the story department.
In many ways, White Lion is the music biopic of wild animal movies. Letsatsi, the film’s central lion, has a rough childhood. He watches his sibling die after being bitten by a venomous snake, is cast away by every pride he encounters due to his freakish appearance (he’s of a rare breed of lion that is almost entirely white) and is forced to live a nomadic lifestyle — wandering through an African valley looking for something to call home or somebody to call family. In fact, Letsatsi, with his white coat and scruffy mane, looks a lot like David Bowie circa-Labyrinth.
Don’t expect The Lion King, though. There’s no Air Buddies-esque lip movement, grand musical numbers or washed-up comedians providing the voice of a bird sidekick.
While the lions aren’t given voices of their own, the cats of White Lion are installed with an amazing amount of personality and character through the use of voice over narration and unordinary close up shots of the lions at play and work.
Because the lions used in White Lion are partially trained and mostly friendly around humans, the filmmakers are able to give audiences a lot closer look at the animals than anything you’re likely to see on Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel.
Like a furry, four-legged version of Vin Diesel, the lions are tossed into various situations — armed with nothing but their innate thespian skills. And, believe it or not, the lions give just as believable performances as can be found in your average Vin Diesel movie.
And if the lions’ acting wasn’t enough for you, the filmmakers of White Lion even throw in some special effects-spawned confrontations between Letsatsi and other African beasties including a crocodile and a warthog.
Unfortunately, for all the characterization and personality instilled into the animals, White Lion really drops the ball when it comes to the human actors. Thankfully, humans are sparsely introduced into the story — appearing only to provide context to the animals’ adventures.
John Kani plays the film’s storyteller, an elderly man relaying the story of Letsatsi to a group of children who just happen to be chilling out in the African wilderness with no other apparent guardians present. Using a campfire-set-story time as a framing sequence to the film, Kani’s narrater has a real Are You Afraid of the Dark? vibe going for him — without the cute Canadian accents, though.
Thabo Malema is Gisani, a young man who comes from a village that reveres the white lion. He has made it his mission to stay close to Letsatsi and protect him from any dangers that may arise until he grows in size and strength. That, naturally, means finding work for a big-game hunter and growing a wicked mustache.
The film’s acting is stilted and one-note — nothing more than an afterthought to the animal footage. Even worse, though, is the script. The storyline is nothing fancy — the same standard lonely animal in the wilderness plot you’re likely to have seen in most any film of this nature. Kani, although statesman-like in his delivery, is no Morgan Freeman. His delivery fails to flow with any poignancy.
The film is mostly appropriate for the family. There’s sweeping grand shots of the African valley, beautifully composed and edited scenes of lions doing lion-things, and enough cute animal antics to keep most kids entertained. More importantly, the film does not shy away from portraying lions as real lions instead of sanitized cuddly stuff animals.
The lions in the film eat other animals — shown in quite graphic details — and in one scene two lions seem to actually stalk a young boy. Show your kids this movie and you won’t have to worry about them wanting to jump into the lion cage the next time you visit the zoo.
If you are able to catch this film in its limited theatrical release or see it when it comes to home video, your best bet is to ignore the story and just enjoy the grand visuals. You’ll gain nothing from the plot or dialogue but I’d hesitate to say you should turn off the soundtrack completely because you’d miss the great score by composer Philip Miller.
White Lion is a harmless animal romp that fails to break new ground or assert its need to exist. As a time diversion for animal lovers, though, you’ll find enough in the film to enjoy to not make you want to feed the film’s filmmakers to the lions.
Director: Michael Swan Notable Cast: John Kani, Thabo Malema and AJ Van Der Merwe Writer(s): Janet Van Eeden and Ivan Milborrow
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.
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