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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVD. Pick of the Week: New. African Cats

(Four Stars)
U.S.-U.K.: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey, 2011 (Walt Disney/Buena Vista)

African Cats, a wildlife documentary from Disneynature, shot in Kenya on the savanna —  with real lions and cheetahs as its main characters — strikes me as 2011’s best family movie so far.

But why be limiting? Why ghettoize this film by calling it a “family movie?” This is a movie for the Family of Man. At the risk of sounding hopelessly corny and shamelessly unhip, let me say that I loved African Cats to pieces, and that I would have probably loved it equally well at any age. I‘d recommend it to any child, any parent, or any adult who was once a child and who would like to rekindle that old sense of wonder we all felt as the world began to magically open up and reveal itself to us.

For its amazing cinematography and luminous storytelling, and for the ways it makes what must have been incredibly difficult to make, look incredibly easy, “Cats” deserves to be called one of the year’s best documentaries and best films, period.

It is an excellent family movie though, that tells an engrossing two-stranded story of a lioness and a mother cheetah caring for their young, despite the threat of fang and claw and sudden death from other predators in the savanna of  Kenya’s Masai Mara National Game Reserve.

And it does so with astonishingly beautiful, crystal-clear cinematography that takes you so deeply into the animals’ world, that it quickly becomes your own.

The co-directors include the estimable Alastair Fothergill, the ex-head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and the man who produced, directed or co-directed the BBC‘s David Attenborough-written-and-narrated non-fiction masterpieces Planet Earth and The Blue Planet (two of the greatest documentaries ever made) and others. Fothergill’‘ directorial partner here is Keith Scholey, who also co-wrote and co-produced.

In the film, Fothergill, Scholey and their crack crew follow a pride of lions, dubbed the “River Pride” in the movie, and the single cheetah mother and her five cubs, over a period of two and a half years, catching in the process both the beauty of their surroundings and the daily danger and drama of their existence.

As we watch — and I‘ll admit I was spellbound — we see sights that feel like privileged views of another wondrous world, far, far away, beneath a blazing sun among animals who can seem majestic, or foolish, or awesome death-dealers, and who mesmerize us with their sheer physical prowess and their stunning beauty.

Co-writers Scholey and Truby help out their audience (especially the children) by dramatizing the events they show us, giving names to the recurring animals we’re watching. “Layla” (Eric Clapton, take note) is the southern-side River Pride’s oldest, bravest mother lioness, “Mara” is her cub/daughter, “Fang” is the pride’s aging lion leader, “Kali” is Fang’s younger tougher rival from the north side of the river, and “Sita” is the dauntless cheetah mother, one of the fastest animals afoot.

It’s not a near-perfect work, which is how I would describe the epic near-11-hour-long original version of Planet Earth, which was shortened for the stateside Disneynature feature Earth. (The original Planet Earth, by the way, is available from BBC Video, and it’s a DVD box set that I think should be in every home that can afford it.) Some documentary purists may strongly object to the way African Cats somewhat anthropomorphizes or humanizes the lions and cheetah, giving them all those names and trying to get inside their heads and tell us what they’re thinking.

But that story-telling strategy isn’t just reminiscent of some of the early Disney nature documentaries from the 50s — like Disney’s well-loved 1955 The African Lion. It’s also reminiscent (perhaps deliberately) of an animated Disney feature with talking cartoon wild animals, like The Lion King.

There’s also a “Gee whiz”“ quality to the movie’s narration by actor Samuel L. Jackson, co-written by Scholey and Truby, that’s alienated some viewers. One critic even compared Jackson‘s tone and delivery to big city ghetto gang talk, which strikes me as unfair. Truby was once a “21 Jump Street” writer, and he probably has heard a “bling” or two, but Scholey hails from Tanzania, far from the hood. (Fothergill, like Attenborough, is from London.) And to me, Jackson, who can be a master at accents, sounded not like some ghetto bro, but like a wide-eyed smiling daddy telling a wondrous bedtime story to his delighted kids.

That might not be a tone some adults would prefer in their movies. They might rather have Morgan Freeman, today’s movie narrator of choice: a wonderfully mellow tale-spinner who combines wisdom, gravity, vocal resonance and warmth with earthiness and street smarts — though maybe Freeman, in our increasingly nasty and divisive, Birther-ridden post-Obama era, would have been also attacked for too much ghetto jive.

But that doesn’t really hurt the movie. And, to be fair, there was a kind of over-enthusiastic “Gee Whiz“ quality to David Attenborough’s narration of all those great BBC Attenborough nature documentaries as well. That may be why he was sometimes replaced, for the American versions of his BBC anthropological films, or for the feature-length Earth, by other narrators: Sigourney Weaver, Patrick Stewart, James Earl Jones.

I greatly prefer Attenborough to his replacements myself, and I think it’s a horrible mistake not to use him in any of these films — though sadly typical of today‘s TV and movie thinking. Enough of this digression though. Jackson is fine. I don’t at all mind “Gee whiz” guys narrating, as long as they know what they’re talking about, and as long as they do their job with real care, skill and affection.

The rest of the movie is a spellbinder: a thrilling adventure of danger and terror, of love and loss, of the ties of blood and the rites of passage. The filmmakers shape the events with total coherence and clarity, with everything caught by cameras that seem to be everywhere (but certainly weren’t), brilliantly editing them into an archetypal story, all narrated by Jackson in that warmly confiding papa’s voice.

The result is a jungle yarn that’s exciting, amusing, and at times, deeply emotional — especially in the sections that show the once-great huntress Layla, determinedly caring for Mara despite painful leg injuries, partly the catastrophic consequences of a zebra hunt (we see the exact moment of the impact, and of her injury), and partly stemming from her gradually failing health and powers.

SPOILER ALERT

Two of the most moving scenes in any recent movie, for me, are this film’s amazing shots of Layla, whose hurt leg has already made it almost impossible for her to keep up with the pride, attacking and driving off the marauding Kali and his sons — after the failure as protector of her broken-toothed, battle-shy husband Fang. Another is our last view of this truly splendid mother — after she passes Mara on to another lioness to care for her — going off quietly to die alone.

END OF ALERT

Sita the cheetah is a great mom as well — leaving her five cubs every day to hunt for the family, driving off the threat of Kali, dangerous hyenas and other cheetahs. The cubs are pretty feisty, especially around jackals, and you should be warned…

SPOILER ALERT

…that not all of them make it to the end of the movie.

END OF SPOILER

But Sita’s alert care, the way she gathers food (from other hunted animals), and the way she fends off the deadly attacks of the other predators, including Kali and his sons, hyenas and even other male cheetahs — diverting them from the frisky cubs and then simply outrunning them — makes for something both pulse-quickening, and, like Layla’s sacrifice, inspiring.

SPOILER ALERT

Layla’s final scenes raise a question about the ethics of wildlife documentaries, especially the long-standing credo that forbids filmmakers ever to explicitly interfere in the events they record, therefore (I assume) keeping them from coming to the aid of the pain-ridden Layla (something admittedly touchy and requiring great knowledge and bravery, given her fierce hunting prowess and courage) and trying to tend her wounds and to save her life — as your heart cries out for them to do.

But the credo makes sense, I guess. How and when can you choose to play God? Where would Layla go? What would happen to Mara and her new mother? And besides, the story of Layla and Mara becomes, as recorded and retold here, something almost mythic and truly beautiful, something that surpasses one life, one sorrow, and becomes a tale that’s universal, to touch us all.

Still, if it were me, and I could have done it, I would probably have tried to save Layla, that big MamaCat — and maybe gotten killed in the process. So, I’m no pro, at least at nature documentaries. Which is another reason why they’re so much harder than they look.

END OF ALERT

You cannot praise enough the camerawork here of Owen Newman, Sophie Darlington and the high definition and slow-motion work of Simon King, or the editing of Martin Elsbury. God, what a great job they do! The way you get astonishing scenes like these, of course, is simply to be patient and wait, and to establish a (safely distant) rapport with the animals, to predict what they’re going to do next — and then to flawlessly catch the explosions of action when they finally occur.

Fothergill and his fellow filmmakers were masters of all this in Planet Earth, especially in that movie’s “Great Plains” chapter. Planet Earth’s hair-raising sequence of the wild dogs pursuing the impala (shown mostly in helicopter shots) is one of the most thrilling, throat-tightening movie action sequences in living memory, a scene that beggars and leaves in the dust all the phony pyrotechnics of the average action movie.

African Cats has similar scenes: chases and fights that take your breath away. What makes the movie really moving and unusual though, are those scenes of Layla and Mara, and of the deep natural bond we see between them, a bond that Layla is forced to gently sever.

Some “sophisticates,” or cynics, or people who like to talk tough and ridicule animal lovers and nature conservation, may scoff at the idea that the emotions the movie imputes to the old lioness and her young cub (whom we first see at the age of six months) are real, or anything like human emotions. But anyone who’s owned a treasured pet or known well someone else’s, knows that animals do think and remember, and they care, and love, and they can even, as we see here, sacrifice themselves out of that love.

Why do we critics tend to ignore or bypass nature documentaries, or documentaries of any kind, in our all-time lists, although audiences adore the best of them, and though the best are chronicles of life that can be valuable for all time. Alastair Fothergill’s and David Attenborough’s directing, writing and narrating work on Planet Earth and “Blue Planet” and the other Attenborough films, ranks, I think, with the really great documentary filmmaking of the past few decades –or,  hell, of all time. African Cats is not on their level. (Planet Earth was the most expensive of BBC’s nature documentaries). But it’s in their league.

Maybe we tend to think too much that great documentaries should be raw, tell-all social and political exposes, with strong political themes and messages. But don’t Planet Earth and the others have strong political themes and messages too? Doesn’t African Cats? Attenborough and Fothergill’s next TV mini-series, Frozen Planet, is all about the struggle of animals to survive rapid climate change in the polar regions. What could be more political, or more important, than that? Isn’t saving the planet from possible despoiling and its animals from destruction — and incidentally preserving a precious chronicle of their ways of life on film forever (we hope) — among the strongest contemporary messages you can convey?

African Cats is not Fothergill’s finest film. (For that he probably needs those huge BBC budgets, and Attenborough, to write and narrate.) But it’s an excellent one, and one that I think, I hope, will move others as much as it moved me. Farewell, Layla. And Run Sita Run. Extras: Filmmaker Annotations, Music Video, Featurettes.

 

 

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