Just two weeks after the Imax 3D film Born to be Wild about elephants and orangutans opened, here comes another G-rated live action wild animal film to pull at our heart, environmental and purse strings on Earth Day, April 22.
African Cats follows in the tradition of previous Disneynature films, Earth in 2009 and Oceans in 2010. Disneynature was launched in 2008 and continues in the Oscar-winning wild life documentary film tradition of Walt Disney.
Actor Samuel L. Jackson narrates the story of a pride of lions and a family of cougars that make their home in the Masai Mara Reserve on the border between Kenya and Tansaniza. The reserve covers an area of 580 sq. miles and “ … is like being at the beginning of the world” according to Jean-Francois Camilleri, President of Disneynature.
For two-and-a-half years the filmmakers followed the animals, spending days and weeks tracking them as they roamed their territory. To evoke empathy for these threatened creatures, the sequences are filled with close-ups and the key animals are named so that we can follow the stories of their births, development, interactions, survival and death in a habitat that is threatened.
We learn what they eat, see them play and watch as the lion Kali and his four sons move in on poor old Fang to chase him out and take over his pride. Kali is the main villain in the story and the female Sita the heroine.
Cheetah families are led by single mothers; after the cubs are grown, they go off on their own until mating season. Here, mama Sita, built for speeds of up to 64 mph, chases down prey as she tries to protect her cubs from hyenas.
As the lions, cheetahs and other animals roam their territory or migrate across the wide savannahs, looking for food and water, they come to the Mara River, filled with hungry crocodiles and hippos. A lot of drama takes place here and this wild life is truly marvelous to behold.
There is a growing paradox with these kinds of nature films, however, and this is the absence of the total reality they claim to depict. The life of wild animals is filled with blood, as a consequence to the violence of survival or birth, but none is shown in the film. The animals capture and eat their prey, even entrails, but there is nothing that would really scare a child or make a young viewer feel as if the cute little animals have been hurt.
I asked one of the PR people for African Cats why they edit this reality out and he explained that the studios know that little kids cannot handle it when cute animals are killed, even naturally.
I met the film critic Leonard Maltin in the elevator after the film and he told me that he and another gentleman were discussing how, when their children were very young, they had meltdowns when an animal was killed or died in a film and could not be consoled. Is this because Disney and other animated studios have already taught children, from their first movie, that these are humanized animals (anthropomorphized as in “The Lion King”) leaving kids out of the authentic cycle of life?
I know some adults have never gotten over the death of Bambi’s mother, but there is a difference between make-believe and reality. And to get a “G” rating from the MPAA, and reach the broadest audience possible, there can be no blood and therefore the violence in nature is mitigated.
However, the cinematography took my breath away.
African Cats is a wonderful, informative look at lions and cheetahs in the wild, if a bit long. At 90 minutes, it seemed longer. The film is a fundraiser for several non-profit wildlife foundations and there is a strong social-media presence promoting the film.
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