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Disneynature’s African Cats opens on Earth Day, but a more appropriate holiday might be Mother’s Day. For the film concerns two mothers — one an aging lioness with a cub, the other a cheetah with five newborns — and their struggles against predators and their own mortality to raise these youngsters into adulthood where they can fend for themselves. The narration, dramatically rendered by Samuel L. Jackson, constantly harps on the theme that “a mother’s love” is all that will sustain and protect these young cats.
As this insistence on turning animal instincts into human emotions might portend, the Disney movie does create child-friendly stories and characters within the animal kingdom to acquaint young audiences with the hard facts of life and death in the vast grasslands of East Africa. It gives its feline characters vaguely Indian names such as Sita and Kali — okay, Fang would not qualify as an Indian name — and the filmmakers spent two-and-a-half years crouching behind their cameras, waiting for those precious few moments when hunts, fierce confrontations or high drama occur so they can piece together a story about “courage and love.”
Nothing’s wrong with this approach, of course, as young audiences will find these stories more gripping than an adult doc preaching about conservation. And certainly the cinematography and editing are as superb as the film’s stars are photogenic and heroic. A slow-motion shot of a long-limbed cheetah closing in on its prey, dirt and grass spraying in all directions, is nothing short of breathtaking.
Director/co-producer Keith Scholey, who co-wrote the film with John Truby, sets his story along a river that divides a North Kingdom from a South Kingdom. In the North lives Sita, a sleek and gorgeous cheetah mom, who must keep her brood a secret from the rest of nature if they are to survive.
To the South dwells the River Pride, a pack of lionesses that feed the young while Fang, their male protector, patrols the territory. Their lead hunter Layla has a six-month old cub, Mara — named apparently for the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya where the film was shot.
Both stories carry plenty of drama: Sita must abandon her young when she hunts for their food, leaving them vulnerable to many enemies including those lions.
Layla, already slowed by injuries, receives a zebra’s kick while bringing the beast down that injures her permanently, an episode caught on film. If she cannot keep up with the pride as it follows its food sources, her cub may stick with her and die without the pride’s protection.
Fang too is threatened by a powerful lion, Kali, and four brawny sons, who seek to expand their empire from the North to the South once the water level in that crocodile-infested river goes down.
These stories, of course, create rooting interests for young viewers by selecting heroes and villains from among the wildlife. A gazelle brought down by Layla is cause for celebration — her cubs will eat tonight! But Layla’s loss of cubs to other food-seekers is “a mother’s worst nightmare.” Hyenas are “deadly enemies” rather than other hungry beasts. You almost expect the animals to burst into a chorus of “The Circle of Life.”
For the most part, this works though. Scholey and his main camera operators, Owen Newman and Sophie Darlington, get astonishingly close to their characters so the film can be cut together for high drama and action.
Fang’s broken tooth, still dangling from his jaw following a “war wound,” comes to symbolize his own weakness as a solitary protector going up against five magnificent cats intent on stealing away his pride.
The cubs learn “lessons” about who to hunt and how to do so. When Mara is rejected by the pride before she has learned her lessons, you see what can happen.
The mercilessness of the animal kingdom is more than brought home without too much terror for youngsters. Even so, that G rating will not prevent a moment or two of distress among the very young.
The fearlessness with which the lion and cheetah mothers protect their cubs is amazing to behold. In most cases, even male lions or a pack of hyenas will back down in the face of such relentless ferocity. The animal kingdom, much better than human one, recognizes the difference between a bluff and the real deal: These mothers will willingly die for their cubs.
And then when their job is done, the cheetah resumes her solitary life — as will her adult progeny — and the old lion will disappear from her grown cub to die in peace and dignity. No one expects a Mother’s Day card in thanks.
Opens: Friday, April 22 (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Production companies: A Fothergill/Scholey production of a Disneynature film
Director: Keith Scholey
Co-director: Alastair Fothergill
Screenwriters: Keith Scholey, John Truby
Story by: Keith Scholey, Owen Newman
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson
Producers: Keith Scholey, Alix Tidmarsh
Directors of photography: Owen Newman, Sophie Darlington
Specialist photography: Simon King
Music: Nicholas Hooper
Editor: Martin Elsbury
Rated G, 90 minutes
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