After walking out of Disneynature’s newest Earth Day film, African Cats, I had the strangest sense of déjà vu. It was like I had already seen this exact same movie before. Many, many times. It turned out I had and chances are you have too. Hell, anybody who has ever lived through middle school has seen it. A nature documentary about wild African lions is nothing new (especially considering that The Last Lions was released only a month and a half ago), but you can’t fault one for being derivative. These movies set out to show how difficult it can be for them to survive; it’s only natural for them to follow similar paths. So despite my boredom with this topic at this point, I can’t tell you to skip a movie that is this well produced.
African Cats follows a select number of animals as they try to survive in the harsh lands of Africa. There’s Leila, the oldest and most experienced lioness whose final days are fast approaching, Seta, a cheetah whose lonesome life is about to change with the arrival of new cubs, Fang, the leader and protector on the North side of the river, and another lion whose name escapes me, but since it’s arbitrary and made up by the filmmakers anyway, let’s just call him Steve. Steve is the leader of a pack of lions on the other side of the river and is Fang’s greatest threat.
Of course, the only reason any of that is relevant is because of the narration (from Samuel L. Jackson), which, like so many other nature documentaries, opts to tell us what’s happening rather than just show us, even going so far as to give each animal a personality and fill in their thoughts, usually to an exaggerated degree. It’s one thing to say that a lioness is fearful for her cubs as they show her defending them, but it’s something else when you say that a cub thinks his father is “the best dad ever!” Despite dialing down the cutesy narration that pervades these movies (the previous quote is one of the only times you’ll roll your eyes), it makes up for it by overdramatizing everything, like when an invading pack of hyenas begin to “tighten the noose” on Seta and her cubs. The largest offender, however, is the musical score, which is sometimes more fitting for a mystery thriller than a nature documentary. The suspense should be natural in a real world setting such as this, but artificiality usually wins out.
As always, it must be questioned just how much of this is actually authentic and how much is fabricated for dramatic effect, especially after the narration claims a lion has just died even though you can still see it breathing. For all we know, the standoffs are edited together to look like opposing prides are directly across from each other when in reality they could be in two different areas. But again, just like The Last Lions, it doesn’t really matter. The story is negligible compared to the breathtaking visuals from directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. It may be par for the course for these Disneynature documentaries, but I was yet again dazzled by what I was seeing. From the most grandeur landscape shots to the careful tracking shots of the world’s fastest land animal, African Cats is a sight to behold.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking to learn something, you might be out of luck. If you’ve seen even one other documentary about wild lions (and even probably if you haven’t), nothing will be said here you didn’t already know. This is not a particularly special movie and it does little to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack, but if you want to see a beautifully filmed documentary with plenty of adorable creatures to coo over, you won’t find anything better than this.
African Cats receives 3/5