'Mia and the White Lion': Film Review

'Free Willy' it ain't.

Gilles de Maistre's family film imagines a girl in South Africa whose best friend is a lion.

Upsetting facts about the trade in lions sold for "canned hunts" serve as springboard for sentimental adventure in Gilles de Maistre's Mia and the White Lion: Here, a girl who has spent three years watching a lion cub grow sets the now-huge beast free, trusting that it won't eat anyone while she walks it cross-country to safety. Cuddly vibes quickly give way to something more questionable here, and while many kids will find the fantasy appealing, any parent buying a ticket should be legally required to show his child Grizzly Man immediately after — lest sheltered viewers buy into the film's anthropomorphizing love of animals designed by nature to kill us.

De Maistre says his film was inspired by a boy he met while filming a French documentary. The 10-year-old's parents owned a conservation farm, where lions were raised to be sold to zoos and do-gooder organizations, and he loved the animals. After filming, the director learned that the child's parents were actually raising animals to be shot by trophy-hunting tourists.

Conceiving a way to turn this heartbreaking scenario into an uplifting fiction, the filmmakers then teamed with South African zookeeper Kevin Richardson to make it convincing without CG: They cast a girl, Daniah De Villiers, who would spend the next three years befriending an actual white lion cub. The film shot intermittently over those years, using the girl's actual affection for the animal as its engine.

In the story, De Villiers' Mia has been unwillingly relocated from London to a South African farm her parents (Melanie Laurent and Langley Kirkwood) inherited from her grandfather. However resentful the girl is about losing her human friends, opening scenes will wow young animal-loving viewers; it's like a Nat Geo version of We Bought a Zoo, with wide open grasslands where giraffes and elephants roam free. Mia's older brother Mick (Ryan Mac Lennan), plagued by panic attacks and nightmares, finds comfort as an aspiring veterinarian, rescuing lap-sized critters who've been wounded.

On Christmas morning, Dad walks in with a newborn white lion. The kids, having been raised on a folk legend identifying white lions as symbols of harmony ("He's come to save us all," someone says later), are delighted, and soon Mia cares more about this cat than her British Skype buddies. Four months later, the adorable "Charlie" hangs out in her bedroom. His play gets aggressive at one point, and he moves to bite her, at which point she whacks him on the nose. "Are you testing me?," she asks. "It's OK, boy, you're testing me."

That should be a chilling scene, showing how the girl develops the false sense of security that will guide her decisions for the next few years. But while the script makes obligatory mentions of danger throughout, the pic is as convinced as Mia is that no harm could possibly come to her. They're friends, after all. Scenes of small-scale destruction to come — at one year old, Charlie is roaming the house and eating the family's television — are treated like cute hijinks. When something actually scary happens, de Maistre and the screenwriters stage things to make it seem that the real danger is Mom's fear, not a giant carnivore's instincts.

Mia keeps ignoring Dad's insistence that she stay outside Charlie's cage, and when he finally decides his only choice is to sell the animal, she rebels. She not only opens Charlie's cage, but those of other lions as well, leaving animals she knows are killers to roam around the farmhouse while she leads her buddy off into the wild. In the course of her not-to-be-believed great adventure, the 14-year-old will steal a truck, shoot her father with a tranquilizer designed to bring down a lion and lead Charlie through the middle of a shopping mall full of all sorts of distractions and temptations.

A skeptical viewer who thinks, "Well, there was a lion expert on the crew, so this must all be legit," should think again. Press materials make no mention of a tragedy last year in which a lion broke away from Richardson at his private game reserve in South Africa, killing a woman who was visiting the property. That's what wild animals do, whether we love them or not. Given its focus, viewers might forgive Mia for its clumsy direction of actors, its contrived plot or its on-the-nose dialogue. But training impressionable kids to identify with a girl who sneaks into lions' cages is a cinematic flaw that could have heartbreaking real-world consequences.

Production companies: M6 Films, Film Afrika, Pandora Film
Cast: Daniah De Villiers, Melanie Laurent, Langley Kirkwood, Ryan Mac Lennan, Lionel Newton, Lillian Dube, Brandon Auret
Director: Gilles de Maistre
Screenwriters: Prune de Maistre, William Davies
Producers: Valentine Perrin, Jacques Perrin, Nicolas Elghozi, Gilles de Maistre, Stephane Simon, Catherine Caborde
Director of photography: Brendan Barnes
Editor: Julien Rey
Composer: Armand Amar

Rated PG, 98 minutes