By: Addison Wylie
Looking back on the three features brought to us by DisneyNature, one can make the observation that each movie is different in its narrative. Earth presented three families of animals and told their stories through footage of them living and coping. Oceans scrapped the “three family” idea and showed us a rapid fire look of underwater life. With African Cats, DisneyNature tries something new. The film takes breathtaking footage of Lions, Lionesses, and their cubs and threads in a story about companionship, love, and passion with a Kenyan backdrop. This take is very different and taking chances is a strong sign of greatness and creativity. That said, these new angles don’t always work as strongly as they want to.
Taking notes from Earth, which was also directed by Alastair Fothergill, African Cats follows groups of these beautiful creatures. There are two groups of Lions; a group led by the protective Fang and the rival assembly led by an equally strong Kali. The audience follows these two groups of tough felines as they fight for their territory and try to earn more respect and more land.
In Fang’s pride, there’s a Mother and Daughter. Having a long history of hunts and having fought many a battle, the Mother (Layla) is growing old and tired. Her Daughter (Mara) is having to deal with the decision of either following the pride or sticking with her aged Mother in order to help her out.
Our other story follows Sita, a single Mother cheetah raising five cubs. Not only does Sita have to fetch food and find watering holes for her babies, but she must also protect them. There are plenty of dangers that lurk constantly in the long grass and in the air. When staring in the face of danger, Sita and her cubs will not surrender.
There’s a lot going on in African Cats but that’s not where the film’s problem is found. Directors Fothergill and Keith Scholey are able to spend equal amounts of time with each story while transitioning gracefully without losing an audience’s focus. We never feel detached to these stories because of this. However, the two men don’t get off scot free.
The film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and his narration has been scripted by Scholey and John Truby. Here is where we meet my quibbles. Earth and Oceans allowed audiences to watch action unfold without having to fit a specific mold; what happened, happened. Here, it feels as if Fothergill, Scholey, and their tricky editor (Martin Elsbury) watched the footage and manufactured stories full of action, drama, and reoccurring characters. I’m not saying that these events don’t happen in a Lion’s everyday life but the way the footage is cut together while being accompanied by awkward reaction shots and sloppy close-ups, it feels as if there’s an underlining fabrication to it all. In fact, African Cats feels more like fabricated non-fiction than a documentary. Again, DisneyNature deserves some kudos for taking risks but this form of storytelling doesn’t feel right.
Scholey and Truby’s dialogue is used to help tell the stories while moving the movie along. Some of it is cute and some of it is very emotional but it isn’t without its awkward moments. For instance, we see some animals playing during the daytime. We then see the sunset and the scene cuts to a nighttime landscape. Footage of hyenas is shown with dramatic music placed over these clips. The next shot features the sunrise and the audience sees that some of the aforementioned playful animals are missing. Jackson informs us that the hyenas have caught these missing animals and the film moves on from there. My question is: how do we know the hyenas killed them? All the audience saw were random clips of snarling hyenas. The lost animals could be in the brush or they could’ve been playing and lost their way. These occurrences feel more like assumptions than fact. These instances may not make its young movie goers ask questions but it may make older audience members skeptical.
I do think the footage is shot exceptionally well outside the close-ups. Simon King is able to capture these animalistic lifestyles quite well. I particularly like the shots that feature families or prides of animals observing the empty plains; they look like they’re posing for a family portrait. When King starts to play around with those close-ups, it’s hard to make out what exactly he’s focusing on and it feels as if he wants to take his cinematography to a different artistic level. King, however, doesn’t need to shoot this close. If he eases his cameras back, there’s plenty of beautiful artistry going on in front of him. I have a feeling he knows this and he was just experimenting with different techniques.
The audio is recorded competently and it’s mixed very well. There’s nothing like feeling a lion’s roar shake your chair. I also commend Nicholas Hooper on his score. His music has the ability to set a mood fast while being catchy. His tunes will be resonating with audiences for days.
Personally, and some people may be like me, I go to these movies to learn something. They don’t have to be facts spoon fed to me but I would like to extract some details out of a movie that is about subject matter I know little about. Sadly, African Cats is light on knowledge. However, if movie goers wish to be entertained by a technically competent film filled with gorgeous visuals and impacting sound, African Cats will most certainly work for them.