Lion Ark: Film Review

"Born Free" has nothing on this compelling real-life story.

Twenty five lions are rescued from appalling conditions in Bolivian circuses in Tim Phillips' animal rights-themed documentary.

The daring rescue of dozens of animals being illegally held by itinerant circuses throughout Bolivia is the subject of Tim Phillips’ documentary that will certainly stir the hearts of animal lovers. Centering on the liberation of twenty-five lions previously confined in groups of eight to a cage, Lion Ark boasts a compelling narrative focus that lifts it above the plethora of recent animal rights activist films.

Prefacing the events chronicled in the film was a two year undercover investigation by a group called Animal Defenders International (ADI) -- their supporters include longtime animal rights activist Bob Barker and actress Jorja Fox (CSI), seen in interviews -- that revealed shocking conditions concerning animals featured in circuses throughout South America. It resulted in Bolivia’s banning animals in circuses outright, but the law was flouted with impunity.   

As a result, a team from the group embarked on what was dubbed Operation Lion Ark, in which they would track down the circuses and rescue the animals. Needless to say, this resulted in often tense confrontations, several of which are captured on film.

The lions -- bearing such names as Colo Colo, Hercules, Campeon and Bam Bam -- clearly display the effects of their suffering, exhibiting such behaviors as compulsive pacing, near catatonia and fighting among themselves for food. Their often aggressive behavior is depicted in a montage scored, a little too cutely, by the Joan Jett song “Bad Reputation.” Even after their rescue, another complication arises involving their having to be airlifted over 5,000 miles to a sanctuary in Colorado.

The filmmaker, who co-founded ADI with his wife Jan Creamer, documents the dramatic developments in compelling cinema verite fashion. The tenseness of the proceedings is occasionally alleviated by such amusing moments as an impromptu show of support by a passing figure dressed as Zorro and one undercover investigator’s account of how he posed as a juggling clown. And fortunately it all ends happily, with the lions seen wandering free in their spacious new outdoor surroundings and the revelation that since the rescue operation three more South American countries have banned the use of wild animals in circuses and two others have similar legislation pending.

Opens Nov. 15 (ADI Films)

Director: Tim Phillips

Screenwriters/producers: Jan Creamer, Tim Phillips

Directors of photography: Tony Pattinson, Mark Whatmore

Editor: Tony Pattinson

Composer: Karel Havlicek

Not rated, 100 min.