A film review by Craig J. Koban May 1, 2011

AFRICAN CATS j
j
½ 

2011, G, 90 mins.

 

A documentary by Disneynature directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill

 

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson

AFRICAN CATS represents the third film from the Disneynature line of nature documentaries, following in the footsteps of last year’s engrossing OCEANS and 2009’s EARTH.  Much like its two antecedents, AFRICAN CATS is, at times, spellbinding not only for its sprawling and epic imagery, but also for the manner that it finds a deeply intimate and patiently detailed eye for its subject matter. 

Unfortunately, this new Dinseynature film seems to go out of its way to emphasize some of their past works’ more irritating elements, like a overly cutesy, toddler-friendly voiceover narration track and, more than ever, a blatant attempt at humanizing its wild creatures to the point of imparting more homosapien-like emotions and feelings in them.   Considering that this doc deals with some of the most ferocious and deadly feline creatures on the planet, humanizing them seems like a miscalculation. 

Yet, make no mistake, AFRICAN CATS is an absolute tour de force of jaw-dropping cinematography and editing that, on those basic levels, deserves to be seen on as big of a screen as possible.  Directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill (who also wrote the narration track) apparently devoted three years of their collective lives capturing unbelievable and harrowing footage of various families of African cats on the Massai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya.  Their narration track, as mentioned, feels too much like they are attempting to turn these exotic beasts into heartstring-tugging, bedtime storybook subjects, but they compensate for this with their painterly focus on the natural details of the African geography and their meticulousness and loyalty for capturing moments of the lives of these animals that few have an opportunity to see.

AFRICAN CATS, alas, does have a story, an advertised “true life adventure” (uhhh…yeah!) of two families of cats, the first of which includes a pride of lions led by Fang (hmmm…did they get that name from his birth certificate?) who has recently had his tooth broken in a battle.  In his pride is a cute 6-month-old cub named Mara, who in turn has a cheetah mother named Layla that is literally getting too old for this…you know.  Since Layla is getting on in years and her abilities to protect Mara is getting increasingly difficult by the day, Mara faces an unknown future in the wild.

The other story concerns a single mother, of sorts, a cheetah named Sita who has just recently given birth to cubs that are so adorable that even the most cynical of minds will have difficulty not fawning over the sight of them.  Although this mother is in relatively good health, Sita nonetheless finds that she has to frequently leave her precious and defenseless younglings to search and hunt for food while, nearly at the same time, protecting them from attacks from various lions, hyenas, and adult male cheetahs.  I mean, this feline deserves a mother of the year plaque.

Like OCEANS and EARTH, the level of closeness that the directors create with their subjects in AFRICAN CATS is exemplary: We do get the obligatory establishing shots from miles up in the sky showcasing the raw and rugged beauty of Kenya, but what really helps sell this nature documentary is how many grandiose and intoxicating close-ups of the animals we receive, and AFRICAN CATS is generous with its photogenic and intimidating sights.  The lions and cheetahs presented have a noble beauty about them while they simultaneously carry an unmistakable aura of menace and threat. 

The film's spectacular moments also manage to involve many conflicts between the animals themselves, like, for instance, an exhilarating sequence where Fang engages in a steely eyed stare down with a ravenous crocodile that wants to eat his young.  There is also an equally stirring, if not amazing, moment where Sita’s young cubs manage to bind themselves together in their mother’s absence to fight off the advances of rival cheetahs (no easy feat).  Beyond the cats themselves, we also get ample footage of other wildlife from Kenya, like a remarkable bird’s eye view of herds migrating in what appears to be the thousands. 

Lamentably, though, the longer the largely episodic film progressed the more I found it difficult to sustain my interest.  Perhaps the problem is that narrowing the film’s focus primarily on cats is only enough to stimulate audiences for an hour, but at 90 minutes it becomes difficult.  OCEANS, by direct comparison, looked at a multitude of exotic marine life, which makes AFRICAN CATS feel less sprawling and all encompassing.  The other issue too is that this film only partially adheres to my basic recipe of what makes a good, involving documentary (taking subject matter we may think we are familiar with and then giving us a radical new prerogative to invite our reconsideration of its subjects).  I am not altogether sure I came out of AFRICAN CATS with a whole new, recalibrated mindset about these animals.  They live in the wild, are fiercely protective of their young, and they hunt and eat other animals to live.  Um, yeah, I kind of knew that going in.

Samuel L. Jackson - who is certainly a better narrator than Pierce Brosnan was in OCEANS, who emerged as flat and monotone - helms the voiceover duties in  AFRICAN CATS.  Yet, could they not give this Oscar nominated performer and one of the finest actors of his generation more to say with his lines?  Jackson has a voice that carries an immediate authority, but we are forced to wince and listen to him state things that could only placate wee-young tykes in the theatre and no one else.  Take, for instance, how he mentions to us that Mara “possesses the fighting spirit of his mother” or that, in Mara’s mind, Fang is “the best dad ever.”  I am left wondering how the makers could read the minds of its animals to be able to specifically infer that this is precisely what they think.  Images with the startling and imposing drama deserve a voice track that is not so mindlessly simplistic. 

And speaking of simplistic, AFRICAN CATS – much likes it predecessors - is a really sanitized affair when it comes to the animal-on-animal ferocity that is a natural fact of life for these creatures.  Yes, Sita’s cubs are sooooo dang cute when they're young, but make no mistake, they will become animal hungry, blood thirsty predators when they mature.  To the makers, animal vs. animal carnage is dealt with as an afterthought.  There is noble messages to be had here, like the arduous trials and tribulations that the mother cats go through to raise their young, but I am left feeling that AFRICAN CATS does a bit too much audience-placating heart-tugging with its subjects than it should have.  Most certainly, I was thoroughly transfixed with many of the sequences in AFRICAN CATS, but its scope is limited and hard to sustain for a positive, must-see recommendation on my part. 

 

CrAiGeR's other 

 

FILM REVIEWS:

EARTH  (2009 jjj

 

OCEANS  (2010 jjj1/2

 

CHIMPANZEE  (2012 jj

 

 

 

 

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