With Samuel L. Jackson (narrator), lions, cheetahs, zebras, hyenas. Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey Rated G. 89 minutes.
The films from DisneyNature are family-friendly and feature stunning photography. AFRICAN CATS takes us into the lives of a pride of lions and a cheetah mother and her cubs in a wildlife reserve in Kenya. Anyone who enjoys looking at these magnificent felines from a safe distance should enjoy the show.
The problem is that they anthropomorphize the animals by giving them names and telling their “stories.” Thus one story involves “Mara,” a lion cub whose aging mother is failing in strength and may no long be able to keep up with the other lion mothers. Will “Mara” be abandoned if her mother dies or will she be adopted by her “aunts” and “cousins?” The male leader of the pride is “Fang,” so called because of an injury that has left one tooth hanging from his jaw. He is being challenged by a group of male lions from across the river. His defeat could lead to the slaughter of his cubs.
Meanwhile, “Sita” is a “single mother,” raising her cheetah cubs and fending off attacks from vicious hyenas. When she has to confront a lion, we learn that there’s no solidarity among the jungle cats, and they are often rivals for the same turf. A lot of this has to do with basic survival. In the wild it’s eat or be eaten, and it’s notable that when the lions go hunting for food out of a herd of zebra we don’t get a name for the zebra that ends up a bloody carcass. Since this is G-rated family fare the camera does not dwell on the results. (For more true-to-circle-of-life lessons, see National Geographic’s “The Last Lions.”)
In one sense, “African Cats” is educational in that we see how these animals live in the wild, how they interact with other species and others of their own kind, and how tenuous survival can be when the food source moves out of an area. We also get some sense of the structure of these animal “families.” Among the male lions, control means not only getting the literal “lion’s share” of the food, but claiming the females for purposes of reproduction. This is not “The Lion King” where two cubs fall in love and sing about it. This is the real wilderness where surviving females mate with the male lion who may have killed off her offspring from the previous ruling male.
Likewise as “Sita” is shown teaching her cubs how to fend for themselves, there will come a time when they all go their separate ways. Unlike lions, cheetahs do not hunt in packs, and “Sita’s” loyalty to her cubs only extends until they reach maturity. They don’t come back home to visit.
Children may need to have it explained that the filmmakers best helped the animals by leaving them alone, not by interfering so that the “good” animals win. The one moment that seems cruel is when the cubs turn a turtle on its back trying (and failing) to get into its shell. Stick around for the amusing closing credits where the various animals take their bows for their supposed work on the film (when we find out the turtle got away just fine).
These DisneyNature films have become an annual event around “Earth Day,” providing an entertaining introduction to the world around us. “African Cats” may be the most engaging one yet, but watch out – next year, if the trailer is any indication, audiences will surely go ape for DisneyNature’s “Chimpanzee.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.