If 2009's "Earth
," doc shingle Disneynature's first release, was both a sumptuous visual feast and an accessible teaching tool for all ages, and 2010's "Oceans
" was too overreaching in its scope to provide much in the way of substance, then "African Cats" is such a flowery, superficial experience that to call it a documentary at all would be giving it too much credit. In attempting to cater directly to small children, directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill have unintentionally gone in the exact opposite direction, suffocating the life and spontaneity clear out of the proceedings. In its look at two direct rivals within the cat kingdom, lions and cheetahs, the film has turned what could have been an authentic, riveting, informative tale about survival into a wishy-washy melodrama that likens its feline tribes to shallow, popularity-fueled high school cliques. Giving the cats names and laughably claiming to know what they are thinking and feeling at all timeswhile, it should be noted, the rest of the animals are treated as nothing more than inglorious extras, one-note, expendable victims at the end of the lions' and cheetahs' sharp teethdirectors Scholey and Fothergill bring a weird, unsettling elitist attitude to the circle of life. They want the audience to cheer on the orchestrated protagonists as they slaughter their supper, but why should one species be better, and more worthy of our cares, than the others? Yes, it's all a necessary part of nature, but the sight of zebras and gazelles hopelessly running for their lives while the humanized cats chase them down comes off as awfully exploitative.
Filmed in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, all that separates the North and South Kingdomsthe lions from the cheetahsis a river running through it. Layla, the head hunter lioness, cares for her 6-month-old cub Mara, while Fang, the fierce, broken-toothed male protector, lords over the pride. When Layla is injured, Mara must make the tough decision of whether to stay with her mother and risk the dangers that come with this, or move on with the rest of the pack. To the North, cheetah Sita lives alone, hiding her five newborn cubs from view yet having no choice but to leave them alone while she prowls for food. When Sita begins taking them with her on their hunts"What an amazing first adventure!" Samuel L. Jackson narrates as the little cheetah cubs lap up muddy water following their first excursiontragedy inevitably strikes when they must split up and two of them, taken by hyenas, never return. Meanwhile, back down South, Fang's rule is threatened when the water level subsides and lion Kali, along with his four grown sons, mosey in to show the lot of them who's boss.
"African Cats" was shot over an impressive two-and-a-half years, and the footage, judged on its own merits, is occasionally stunning in its level of intimacy with its wild subjects. A slow-motion shot of Sita stalking a gazelle is rapturous at first before bloodlessly shrinking away from the reality of what happens next. Perhaps Sita wouldn't be quite as cute and cuddly to children if they saw her viciously ripping the throat off another animal. Again and again, though, Samuel L. Jackson (2010's "The Other Guys
") reassures us that it is "the power of a mother's love" that will protect their offspring and help them to grow into adult lionesses and cheetahs just like them. Just when this cinematic Hallmark card couldn't get any more soppy, Jackson offers up this asinine gem about Fang: "To Mara, he's the best dad ever." Give me a break, please. Wasn't Disneynature supposed to be a family-friendly but still honest learning experience for viewers, complete with facts and valid information to shed new light on its non-fictional topics? Instead, the picture is a repetitive series of scenes where the cats scope out their prey while trying to be "cool" enough to fit in with their peers. In lieu of letting the footage speak for itself, characters with cute names are devised and a story is contrived out of the editing and then spoon-fed to the viewers. By the end, as Mara tries to gain approval and be accepted back into the pride after going at it alone for a while, the anthropomorphized lions suddenly resemble douchebags rather than the regal kings of their environment.
Creatively mishandled to the point of making a mockery of its own brand, Disneynature's "African Cats" tosses all but the vaguest educational value to the wind as it transforms the world of its lions and cheetahs and their ill-fated meals into a dopey, faux-cutesy soap opera. The narration is a destructive detriment to the technical work of its filmmakers, while the culmination of footage isn't varied enough to not start repeating itself before the halfway point. For all of its attempts to give sympathy to its title characters, the artifice with which they have been presented keeps them from becoming real. Getting involved in their plight when the zebras and gazelles and crocodiles and hyenas, et. al. are rendered day players whose deaths are somehow less important, virtual punchlines to action, feels disingenuous. Before Disneynature releases their next effort, perhaps they ought to reassess what it is they initially hoped to achieve by making these documentaries. "African Cats" misses the point big-time.