It’s fitting that Disney should be getting back into the nature documentary business with its Disneynature imprint, since Walt Disney himself single-handedly invented the genre with his “True Life Adventures” series way back in 1948. Since then, of course, nature documentaries have been replicated endlessly, mostly on the small screen (with stuff like the gorgeously photographed “Planet Earth” BBC series) or the very big screen (before IMAX started showing really big versions of Hollywood blockbusters, its bread-and-butter was nature documentaries). So it’s sort of nice to have these modest, once-a-year features on multiplexes nationwide (always around Earth Day), as a testament to the vision Uncle Walt had oh-so-long ago.
This year’s entry is “African Cats,” directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and narrated by that cool cat Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a surprisingly riveting documentary, given the proliferation of this sort of thing on television, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the sheer, majestic wonder of watching a pair of lion prides and a fiercely protective cheetah and her cubs, their lives unfolding on a much-bigger-than-Discovery-Channel screen.
The narrative, as much as there is one, concerns one year in Kenya, as we follow two lion prides – one that lives south of a great, snaking river, that is composed mainly of female lionesses and lorded over by a lion the documentarians (and Samuel L. Jackson) have taken to calling Fang because of a gimpy tooth that hangs out of his mouth; and another, more northern pride that is full of young male lions. The northern pride wants to expand its territory, but they can’t make a move until the crocodile-infested river becomes more easily manageable. While all of this lion business is going on, we’re also treated to the story of a cheetah who has recently had a litter of cute cubs. This is sort of a side-story and doesn’t command as much screen time, but it’s just as compelling as the feudal turf war exemplified by the lions’ stories.
“African Cats” is amazingly well photographed, and not in an overtly showy way, either. The frame is full enough so that when you see the mama cheetah, say, galloping across the plain, you can really take in everything and appreciate the way that the cheetah’s head stays perfectly still while its body looks like a locomotive, muscles firing like pistons and legs reaching impossibly far. (Poor antelope!) The most striking moments in the film are the ones in which the visual wonder of this delicate ecosystem, filled with all manner of oddball creature (a pair of dueling aardvarks almost steal the movie away from the titular cats), take over, accompanied by Nicholas Hooper’s dramatic but never-overbearing score.
These moments come more often than you’d think, although Samuel L. Jackson, in his role as “educational narrator,” does have a pretty great time with his line delivery. He practically hisses things like “She has to ssssssneak as clossssse as posssssible,” which might elicit a titter out of viewers old enough to know of his proclivity for the word “motherfucker,” but since “African Cats” will most likely be viewed by children who relate to him as “that Jedi with the purple lightsaber,” it shouldn’t be much of a problem. His narration, too, is written delicately enough that more touchy issues, like a wounded female lion essentially going off to die alone, are palpable and not totally traumatic to the younger set.
And in its own way, “African Cats” makes a pretty compelling argument for the emotional complexity of the wild. As audience members, we get deeply invested in the dynamics of the prides of lions, and in the mother cheetah’s protective fight for her children (there’s a moment when she’s separated from her cubs and consumed by what can only be described as panic). Just by watching them move and interact, hunt and frolic, the animals come across as deeply actualized individuals, not sunny cartoon characters. As easy as the urge would have been to make this some kind of live action “Lion King,” the film instead is a wondrous, emotionally engaging documentary about the bonds of family. It’s a truly true life adventure, indeed. [B+]