African Cats – Review


Disney’s latest Earth Day documentary is an adventure worth taking

In recent years, Disney, who is famous for making many classic films involving memorable cartoon animals, has begun making Earth Day documentaries that follow the real adventures of various wildlife around the globe. Their latest, African Cats, is an exceptional piece of work, that is a beautiful, and sometimes heart wrenching, display of just how hard it is for these animals to raise a family in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

There are two separate cat families that the camera follows: Fang, a battle-weary lion, and his pride; and Sita, a strong, independent cheetah, who has just given birth to five cubs, and must raise them alone. With hours upon hours of footage no doubt filmed over the course of two years, the two stories actually intertwine more than once on this great adventure. It’s something that I can’t believe would be possible to foresee, especially with the cameras having followed the two groups from such an early age, with no real idea of how their stories would unfold; however, while the creators add the names, and narration, it’s the animals who are telling the story, and that’s how it happened.

While the stories both follow the same basic idea about how hard it is for mothers to raise their young against the hardships the untamed land has in store for them, they both also have their own voices. The story of Fang, and his pride, is really more about the eldest lioness, Layla, and her 6-month old daughter, Mara. During a hunt, Layla is injured after being kicked by a zebra, and is left behind by her pride, who can’t afford to be slowed down by their wounded comrade. Her daughter, although risking her life by doing so, chooses to stay behind with her mother, who together set off in an attempt to catch up with the pride, and avoid certain death.

Sita’s story, on the other hand, is much different in tone, and really focuses on the young cubs, and how much more challenging it is for a lone mother to fend for her children with nobody else around to care for them while she’s off hunting. Of course, it’s also a very interesting story, because cheetahs aren’t usually represented strongly as far as wild cats are concerned. Sure, we know they’re fast, but that’s pretty much it. Usually the more famous lions and tigers take the spotlight, yet here, we get to see just how unique a cheetah is from the rest, and how they use different techniques in order to survive than their larger, stronger feline counterparts.

Both stories have their heartwarming moments, though Sita’s is definitely the one that causes the most smiles, at least early on, with how cute, and carefree, her cubs are. As far as intrigue goes, however, one must turn to the side story that follows Fang’s pride from the very beginning, and that’s the group of male lions that live north of the river. Leave it to Disney to be able to find the perfect villain in a nature documentary who both looks and acts like the perfect bad guy. Kali, and his four sons, reign over the north of the river, while Fang rules the south. The river keeps Kali, who is keen on expanding his kingdom, at bay most of the time, but all bets are off later in the season, when the river dissipates and Kali prepares to make his move.

The two stories are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, who does a solid job of doing so, following in the footsteps of James Earl Jones (Earth) and Pierce Brosnan (Oceans). The emotion in his voice shines through, and his larger than life pronunciation of words really adds to the scenes filled with suspense and danger, which are bountiful in this film. At the same time, he also has a playful tone that helps add an extra bit of joy to the cheery, fun moments shared by the cubs and their mothers.

The film’s directors, Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, both do fantastic work here. Fothergill worked previously with Disney on Earth, the company’s first foray into Earth Day releases, and he’ll be doing so again in next year’s release, Chimpanzee. Both men, and their crew, deserve a great amount of praise for the work they’ve done here, as the shots, and stories told, are magnificent. The cinematography is amazing, as some of the places the camera goes is astonishing, and almost unbelievable. Sure, they’re all likely at a safe distance, but there are no second takes with wild animals, and when these guys make it so that the audience is actually on the hunt with a lion and cheetah (we’re talking literally right behind them on certain occasions,) it’s something special.

The musical score is also something that can’t be ignored, as it helps create the atmosphere that the stories command, and brings even more life to a place absolutely filled with it. The entire crew that put it together, conducted by Alastair King, did a wonderful job, and really hit the film’s soundtrack out of the park.

With all the praise, there are a few drawbacks, as the stories sometimes do feel a little long in the tooth at points, even with a solid 89 minute run-time. Some may also argue that this is no different than any other documentary you can find on any wildlife channel at any time of the day, which may be true on some level, but it’s still a wondrous sight to behold on the big screen.

While African Cats is a Disney film, with heroes and villains and all, it’s still a documentary, and an account of the hardships of life in the wild, and as such, parents should take note of this before bringing their kids to see it. Though it’s just the circle of life, this isn’t The Lion King, and certain scenes will no doubt scare younger viewers, and the pacing of the film, while alright for adults, will likely begin to bore them as well. Of course, you know your kids better than I, so don’t let me dissuade you if this is up their alley, as African Cats is a gorgeous film that tells two powerful stories that deserve to be seen.

Director: Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey
Notable Cast: Narration by Samuel L. Jackson

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