It should be expected by now that Disney’s wildlife documentaries are a bit over the top with regards to imposing narratives on the animal kingdom. But their latest annual Earth Day-timed Disneynature release, “African Cats,” shockingly reaches new ground. To the point where, after the real-life lions and cheetahs of a Kenyan reserve are given names, an overlaying plot and their own individual dramatic story arcs, I wondered why the studio didn’t just go ahead and have the beasts talk. And maybe simply animated them. Of course, that would too much resemble “The Lion King,” though I presume the majority of the audience is thinking of the classic cartoon while watching the “real” thing here anyway.
Amazingly “African Cats” has no official screenwriter credit for all the narrativizing going on. But Samuel L. Jackson‘s oftentimes sloppy and painfully wannabe-witty voice-over wasn’t improvised, I’m sure (as terrible as it is). The film story is nothing so complex as an adaptation of “Hamlet” or anything; basically, there are rival lion prides (or families) fighting over territory, a single mother cheetah trying to protect her new cubs and the usual hunting of gazelles and such. It’s the typical savanna ecosystem stuff, only embellished and dramatically forced a lot to keep the crowd involved and occasionally thrilled.
Just as you start to accept the movie as being slightly closer to truth than complete anthropomorphism, however, the end arrives with a “where are they now?” epilogue. Thankfully it’s mostly natural continuations. No lion went to Vietnam and got killed by his own troops, or anything. But then come the credits, in which warthogs are said to have done the hair and makeup and, har har, the giraffes were the crane operators. If co-directors Alastair Fothergill (“Earth”) and Keith Scholey (producer of TV’s “African Wild Dogs”) mean to satirize their own already overdone contriving, then I salute them. I don’t think it’s any less hokey, but I think the kids dug it.
Much of the footage is at least as gorgeous as possible, another expectation of these Disneynature pictures, which appropriate and re-frame material from or inspired by the “Planet Earth” series (on which Fothergill worked). Especially incredible are the overhead wide shots of herds. It is sad, however, that I admittedly look at stuff like that and relate it to CG effects since that’s mostly what we’re given at the movies these days. Anyway, it’s as real as can be, pretty much the only parts of “African Cats” that aren’t overly formatted to the devised plot.
Another thing I constantly thought about while watching was the ethical issues of nature docs. I recalled a Moviefone interview with filmmaker and author Chris Palmer from last fall, in which he celebrated “Planet Earth” for being less staged than wildlife films have been historically. When Disney gets its hands on them, though, there is a lot more manipulation. Maybe nothing filmed is artificial, but the editing turns the footage into a distortion of the real. Notice how much the film is shown in close-up, the easier it is to fake scenes including certain “characters.” Those POV and reaction shots are not legit, obviously.
Plus, these animals are on a game reserve, and certain animals are, umm, lionized, while others (hyenas mostly) are demonized, a common problem for nature films and science in general. Palmer mentions something about this villainization of species, as well. Unfortunately not all creatures have “family values” as easily conveyed as the big cats of the savanna. Thankfully that’s about as far as the allegory goes for Disneynature this time around (not that someone couldn’t easily attempt to project some additional subtext).
I managed to ignore Jackson’s voice through a lot of “African Cats” (partly because the kids in the audience were too loud) and so could enjoy what there is to be appreciated: the cinematography, the basic semblance of nature and the reminder that lions are enormous and enchanting animals that deserve their mythological associations. But isn’t that longstanding reputation for regalness and also the very reality of their stature and command over the wild enough without laying on precise plot points and specific characterizations?
If I want lions with narratives, I’ll turn to Simba, Aslan, the Cowardly Lion, Brave Heart, Lafcadio, the King Richard and Prince John of Disney’s “Robin Hood,” the soccer playing king of Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” Lambert of the eponymous 1951 Disney short. I mean, Disney clearly has enough narrativized lions. I’m still not sure what the real thing is like after seeing this film.