By: Roxana Hadadi
‘African Cats’ a dazzling display of nature both at its fiercest and most heartbreaking
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a zoo. But with Disneynature continuing to pump out eye-opening, breathtakingly beautiful films like “African Cats,” why should I? Animals in the wild > animals in captivity, any day of the week, obviously.
First Disneynature came out with “Earth” in 2007, which was connected to BBC’s “Planet Earth” documentary series and looked at how environmental changes are affecting nature worldwide; then there was “Oceans” in 2009, which again discussed how human behavior is impacting the natural habitat of animals like whales and sharks. “The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos” never came out in the U.S., but Disneynature rebounds from that mistake (am I really to believe that no one in this country would have seen a movie about birds?) with “African Cats,” a Samuel L. Jackson-narrated vehicle that looks at the sprawling beauty of Africa and breaks it down in accessible terms for children. Life is an “adventure,” you see, and it’s only with family support and a mother’s love that we can truly survive.
If you need a film to both teach your kids about Earth Day and get them yearning to buy you a gift for Mother’s Day next month, “African Cats” is it.
The documentary begins in “the heart of Africa,” Jackson says (really the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, which you don’t find out until the film’s end credits), and focuses on two families: A group of lions, led by aging lioness Layla, who live on the southern side of a river flowing through the reserve, and a solitary cheetah, Sita, who is raising five newborn cubs on her own. Though an experienced hunter, Layla isn’t as young as the rest of the lionesses, and knows her usefulness to the River Pride is all that matters to leader Fang; if she can’t contribute, her daughter Mara will be negatively impacted. Similarly worried is Sita, who fears for the safety of her five cubs – born blind and helpless – in the face of dangers like cackling, hungry hyenas and the northern lion kingdom, ruled by Fang’s rival, Kali, and his five sons.
Self-sacrifice is the common theme here, as Layla and Sita – whose paths never cross – must figure out how to survive as the seasons change, animals like wildebeests and deer make their yearly migration out of the region and predators approach from all sides. Layla needs to show her worth, but a serious injury could effectively end her life and throw Mara’s into jeopardy. Sita needs to feed her cubs and keep them healthy, but protecting them from the elements and more ferocious foes is an important priority, too. Prepare to cry, people.
It’s all very much like a real-life “The Lion King,” and it’s astonishing how many scenes are so beautifully shot that they hardly look real. Overhead images capture the vastness of the region, as the river – which unfortunately is never identified during the film, but may be the Mara River, which many animals use to migrate throughout the year – coils and winds throughout the land, providing both sustenance and danger. One shot depicts Sita perching on the savannah, silhouetted against a darkening sky and one solitary bolt of lightning. Other shots use slow motion to great effect, such as displaying Kali and his five sons, striding across their realm and battling with another animals, or Sita hunting, sprinting after prey, the movement of every muscle captured on film.
The detail here is spectacular, from every speck on Sita’s fur to every ridge on a gazelle’s antlers, and Jackson is wonderful, too, engaging the audience with an exciting narrating style that will specifically entertain children. He can be tender (“To Mara, he’s the best dad ever,” he coos when describing Fang), dramatic (“It’s now or never!” he declares during a hunting scene), inspirational (“They have their mother’s spirit,” he says of Sita’s cubs) or amusing (“Never get fresh with an ostrich,” he advises). Jackson is excellent at shepherding the story along, and though the script can sometimes be repetitive in its themes of nature-is-great and mothers-are-wonderful, he uses as much inflection as possible to keep “African Cats” intriguing for parents and children alike.
While the film is rated G, there are elements that may bother very young viewers: There are lots of hunting scenes, so you do see animals killing and eating each other and some blood, and the emotional themes here are weighty, too, such as abandonment, isolation, loneliness and death. Some of the animals we grow to care about do pass away, and while that’s the circle of life, it didn’t keep some younger kids from crying about it during a recent screening.
That’s the way of “African Cats,” though: It shows audiences harsh truths to help them understand what’s at stake for these animals, how survival depends on split-second decisions, how family bonds are some of the most important in the world. As a way to keep your children – and yourself – entranced by nature, “African Cats” is the way to go.