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Entries in nature documentary (2)


African Cats

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


The Last Lions

Nature documentaries are a dime a dozen. It may not seem like it, but they pop up rather frequently across film and television, though they rarely get the exposure big budget films (or even other documentaries) do. I suspect the reason for this is that if you’ve seen one on a particular subject, you’ve seen them all. Case in point with National Geographic’s The Last Lions. Although not without merit, this film’s subject matter, lions as they struggle to survive in the harsh lands of Africa, has been seen before in movies like The Desert Lions and it is likely to be done again in the form of Disneynature’s upcoming African Cats. Because of this, the movie finds itself in a sort of conundrum. Those who enjoy this sort of thing have most likely already seen it in other various forms, so there’s really no need to see it again. However, though derivative, one must respect the craft that went into the making of The Last Lions and in that regard, I give it my recommendation.

When watching a story driven nature documentary such as this, authenticity is always questioned. Who knows how much of this thing is authentic and how much unrelated footage was cut together to create the illusion of events unfolding, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s entertaining and informative. The Last Lions is both, even if it fails to stand out from the crowd. The story as presented here follows a lioness that has just lost her mate to an invading pack of lions and is on the move with her three young cubs to avoid the same fate.

Nature is inherently dramatic and that’s the beauty of The Last Lions. Most of the suspense and emotion comes from what’s unfolding onscreen. You’ll clinch up as you watch the momma lion and her cubs wade through crocodile infested waters and you may even feel a tinge of sadness when tragedy strikes, as it so often does in the wild. The only problem comes from the sometimes histrionic narration from Jeremy Irons, which takes the natural drama of the circle of life and ramps it up, making it much more dramatic than it really is. It’s not easy to watch a bloody, battered lion take his last breath and die, but this type of behavior is not out of the ordinary for these creatures. It is everyday life.

The filmmakers use this tactic to try to tack on a feeling of humanity to these lions, to mixed results. It works because it helps to make things more personal—many of us know what it’s like to act as protector and provider for our families—but it also takes away from the true nature of what is happening. Certain lions are presented in the film as villains, but they are doing nothing any other lion wouldn’t. They are fighting for their survival. Instead of simply presenting the footage and information, the film skews it and makes us essentially choose a side, which misses the entire point.

However, I must commend the filmmakers for dialing down the cutesy narration so many other nature documentaries insist on having (like another one of National Geographic’s films, Arctic Tale). Conversely, it’s actually quite grim, which I appreciated. These animals live in an environment that is dangerous and unforgiving so the sugarcoating that persists in other similar films does a disservice to them. The Last Lions, in this regard at least, gets it right.

At the end of the film, the narrator ominously mentions that the remaining lion could be “one of the last wild lions on Earth,” as if the preceding story of a lion going through the motions of your typical wild animal somehow makes a statement on the dwindling lion population. Although it is true that only a small fraction exist today compared to 50 years ago, you wouldn’t know it from watching this film. Aside from the opening and closing words, there’s no true message here, though the filmmakers would like to believe there is.

With so many problems coexisting beside more positive traits (including the as yet unmentioned stellar cinematography), The Last Lions is polarizing. Love it or hate it, I understand both sides. Although I personally think it’s worth a look, it is better suited for lovers of nature documentaries. Everybody else should steer clear.

The Last Lions receives 2.5/5