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African Cats (2011)

April 28, 2011


produced by: Alix Tidmarsh & Keith Scholey
directed by: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey
rated G
89 min.
U.S. release date : April 22, 2011 
Imagine you’re a female (for some this isn’t difficult, but bear with me) and you live your life among other females, raising your offspring in a tumultuous environment. The lone male who has impregnated you all, is still living among you, but he doesn’t do much except lay around and raise his voice every now and then. You and the others are left with the responsibility of being the sole providers. Then one day five other males come into your home, scare off that worthless male and start bossing you around. They even scare some of your kids away and get you and the rest pregnant….again!
Sound familiar? It might, if you’re a  lioness living in Africa.
Following the Earth Day tradition that began with 2009’s “Earth” and last year’s “Oceans”. Disneynature releases “African Cats”, another vivid and engaging nature documentary to get you reconnected with the animal kingdom. Only thing is, we’ve already had “The Last Lions” and “Born to Be Wild 3D” and there’s a plethora of  programs on Discovery, Animal Planet or Netflix to choose from. So, how does this film stand apart from other nature docs?
Well, it doesn’t in many ways. While it is amazing to behold this animal world on the big screen and hear the roar of a lion thru a booming sound system, both “The Last Lions” and “African Cats” give names and characterization to the cats on display and have prominent narrators. Neither of those are a bad thing. In fact, they come across as an understandable necessity, despite being somewhat criticized by other reviewers.


The voice of Samuel L. Jackson takes us on a safari into the vast savannah of the southwestern wildlife preserve in Kenya. This is where a meandering river separates two prides of lions (one to the north, the other to the south) as well as a family of cheetahs. Crossing the unpredictable river can be a precarious endeavor, from the snipping crocodiles to the hungry hippos, you’re better off staying where you’re at, if you can. But after a while, there’s only so much room to roam in the wild. And if your prey up and migrates, you kind of have to step up your game as well. 
“African Cats” introduces us to Fang, a world-weary alpha leader with a nasty snaggletooth that is just asking to be pulled and sting onto a necklace. It’s a look he wears with confidence as he leads his pride of working class lionesses and their (his) cubs. In that pride is Layla, the most courageous lioness of them all, who must push past her injuries to protect and raise her lone daughter, Maya. There’s also a rival group of male lions led by Kali, a Lion King wanna-be, who poses a threat to Fang’s pride (in more ways than one). We also meet a cautious cheetah mother named Sita, who most protect her curious cubs from the likes of buffalo and hyenas. They all live in a beautiful land, full of magnificent creatures both exotic and dangerous. These cats survive, primarily due to the amazing perseverance of the females that manage to keep life together, as they withstand the presence (or absence) of the pompous males in their lives. 
Morgan Freeman can’t narrate every doc out there, so Jackson is a welcome presence. He provides a rich and expressive voice to the film. He seems as attentive and interested as the audience, as we examine the lives of these wild cats. Instead of just explaining what we’re seeing or merely spewing tour guide tidbits, he articulates the behavior and action of these cats as they play, deal with threats and, of course, hunt for prey.
As required with a G rating, viewers are spared any intense carnivorous dining activities. By now, your toddler knows there animals who eat other animals, but thankfully, “African Cats” is also showing the kiddos that “less is more”. Cutting away from a lion bone-snapping a zebra’s leg leaves much more to the imagination than actually showing such a smorgasbord.
Through dazzling visuals and stunning close-up shots, directors Alistair Fothergill and Keith Scholey (both have produced a variety of previous nature docs) give viewers what the film calls “a true life adventure”.  Deciding on a dramatic approach is a smart move and it works well, even though it’s all a bit forced and projecting at times. Personifying these cats does have a downside, in that we don’t have a perilous on-the-fly documentary feel that could provide a sense of danger for the filmmakers. But, what it does is leaves no room for boredom, as we applaud the mother cats and frown upon the deadbeat dads.
As expected, viewers will leave with a good helping of  memorable scenes. From the cutesy frolic of young cubs to the parade of colorful supporting characters on display, there’s bound to be a scene or two that will leave an indelible mark. For me, that scene has to be the riverside standoff between Fang and a killer croc. Teeth are gnashed, hissing and growling can be heard, as neither of them flinch or back down. In the end, one of them does though. It’s an undeniably cool scene to watch.
The film concludes with American Idol winner Jordan Sparks belting out “The World I Knew”, on original song that plays during the end title credits, which also includes some humorous animal anecdotes. “African Cats” is a worthy installment in Disneynature’s Earth Day tradition, yet considering the content, it could have easily been released during Mother’s Day.

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