As long as I’ve been aware of Walt Disney as a company, nature films have been part of that identity.
I’d even argue that the first documentaries of any type that I saw as a kid were the “True Life-Adventures,” a series of short films that ran from the late ’40s until 1960, and which were packaged and repackaged as part of the various Disney anthology shows on TV. As an adult, I’m aware of the awful reputation the “True-Life Adventure” films have in terms of inaccuracies and animal cruelty, but I’m also aware that at the time they were made, many of them won Academy Awards. I loved the films when they would show up on TV, and when they were released on DVD a few years back, I was thrilled.
In the wake of the almost unbelievable box-office performance of “March Of The Penguins,” every studio started thinking about how to get in on that type of business, and Disney remembered that they already had a history in that market, one they could easily build on now with the marketing muscle they have at their disposal. DisneyNature was born as a distribution label within the larger Disney family, and kicked off with “Earth” in 2009, which was basically just a stripped down feature-length greatest hits version of “Planet Earth,” the acclaimed BBC documentary series. They followed that up last year with “Oceans,” a very pretty film that felt fairly innocuous overall. This year, they’re offering up “African Cats,” co-directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and I think it works much better as a piece of narrative than “Oceans” did. To me, this feels like the 21st century version of the “True-Life Adventures” in a way that absolutely deserves the Disney name on it.
The real trick here is crafting a narrative out of the footage that the filmmakers captured and not just doing a tour of the Masai Mara National Preserve in Kenya, where the film was shot over the course of two full years. To that end, they’ve given Samuel L. Jackson a whoooooooole lot of voice-over to record, to make sure that you’re given every anthropomorphic clue about how to respond that they can possibly put together. The film tells the story of two different prides of lions, separated by a river, and the struggle for territory between them. It also tells the story of two mothers, one a cheetah, one an aging lioness, and the decisions they make and how they affect their offspring.
It’s very difficult to be honest about the way the food chain works without including some violence in a nature documentary, and there is enough of that in this film that both of my sons afterward called it “scary.” And certainly the filmmakers milk all the inherent drama out of of moments like the lions trying to cross a crocodile-filled river or the challenges between Fang and Kali, the two lions who head the respective prides. There are moments of real loss in the film, and in particular, a sequence involving Sita, the cheetah mother, was difficult and sad. But for the most part, the film captures the rhythms that define the lives of these animals, the way they survive the various cycles of the grasslands, and the intimacy of much of what was filmed really is impressive.
Fothergill was the head of the BBC Nature department for a while before he stepped down to focus on specific projects, and he was part of “The Blue Planet,” “Deep Blue,” and, most notably, “Planet Earth.” Scholey also has a background in this type of material, producing for “Nova” and “Nature”. Together, they’ve made a movie that offers up an unsparing look at the lives of these impressive animals, one that works as both story and experience, and if this is the sort of fare that DisneyNature is going to offer up each year, then bring on next year’s “Chimpanzee” and whatever they’ve got on tap after that. Until I can afford to travel with my kids so they can get firsthand experience of the world, a documentary like this offers a smart and slickly-produced window into that world.
“African Cats” opens this Friday in theaters nationwide.