Review: Wildlife oddity ‘Roar’ is the can-you-believe-it discovery of the year

“Roar” feels like Walt Disney decided to make a snuff version of “Swiss Family Robinson.” It may be the single most irresponsible thing I've ever seen as a movie, and I have seen it three times now. I may watch it again tonight. I am that fascinated by this record of absolute madness.

Drafthouse Films has done a great job of picking up worthy new films for release, starting with “Four Lions,” but they've also displayed a knack for turning up some fascinating curios, forgotten films that might otherwise never get their moment. “The Visitor” was a great example, a deranged mix of religious allegory and post-“Star Wars” blockbuster mania. One of the highlights of this year's Fantastic Fest was a screening of a film called “The Astrologer,” a self-financed vanity project that defied any easy description, and I was disappointed to learn that there are copyright issues that may prevent that from getting any sort of actual release. With “Roar,” though, they've come up with something that demands a trip to the theater, the sort of thing you're going to want to see with as many friends as possible.

Maybe I'm just fascinated by vanity projects, movies that only exist because a crazy person willed them into existence against all common sense. In this case, I'm not sure who the crazy person is, Noel Marshall or Tippi Hendren. Or maybe it took two people to have a dream this batshit crazy and dangerous. In real life, Marshall and Hedren were married, and they used their real kids as cast members. That's not the crazy part, though. The crazy part is the giant army of actual lions and tigers who co-star in the film, and who are so completely the focus of things that Marshall actually gives them co-writing and co-directing credit.

I'm not kidding. This movie was co-written and co-directed by lions and tigers.

Their contributions seem to largely consist of terrorizing and mauling the entire human cast. What began as a dream about making a film that would spur people to become more involved in animal activism turned into an eleven-year-nightmare that nearly killed many of the cast and crew. One of my favorite things about the movie is that it all takes place over the span of about 30 hours, and yet the production dragged on for years, eventually spending the mind-boggling sum of $17 million. Unless the lions were actually drawing salary, I have no idea how this movie could have cost that much.

Let me try to describe the film to you. Noel Marshall plays Hank, a lunatic who is living in the middle of nowhere in Africa in a house that has been completely taken over by roughly 200 lions and tigers. He hasn't seen his family in a while because he's been busy trying to stand up to local poachers. On the day his family comes to Africa to visit, Hank goes to the airport to pick them up. They miss him. He misses them. They end up at the house by themselves, and for roundly 20 hours, they run screaming from room to room while being chased by the big cats, terrified for their lives. Then Hank shows up and they all have a good laugh.

That's pretty much it. There is also a power struggle going on within the lion pride and there are a couple of scenes involving actual poachers, but for the most part, this is a film about Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith, John Marshall, and Jerry Marshall running around and freaking out because they are in obvious mortal danger. And lest you think this is an empty threat, I would direct your attention to a piece that was written by Tim League about this movie. He did some digging into the history of the film and came up with this:

As their big cat collection rose to over 100 animals, the shadow of Beverly Hills became too restrictive. The entire Marshall family moved their pride to a ranch property 40 miles north of Los Angeles, and began shooting.

Due to their familiarity with the animals, the entire cast was comprised of Marshall, Hedren, their four children and a few seasoned animal trainers. Emerging European cinematographer Jan de Bont (Speed) was recruited to shoot the film, his first American production. What followed was five years of the most terrifying and dangerous filmmaking ever committed to celluloid.

The cast and crew endured countless injuries, with over 70 bloody attacks documented. While nobody was killed, there were several close calls, most notably de Bont being scalped by a lion resulting in 220 stitches on his head. Hedren endured a fractured leg and deep scalp wounds. Griffith was mauled by a lion, resulting over 100 stitches and reconstructive surgery. Noel was gored so many times that he was eventually hospitalized with gangrene. Maintaining a consistent crew became virtually impossible as injuries and safety risks kept them from returning to set. The production also endured multiple floods-including one that wiped out the entire set-wildfires, a feline illness that decimated their cat population and non-stop financing woes.

I am trying to imagine any other film that features so much genuine terror and genuine violence, especially one that's ostensibly a family film. When the lions start attacking each other or attacking the humans, it is legitimately scary. I'll say this much for Marshall as a director… you can't tell that this was shot over the span of a decade. Each sequence is constructed with a good sense of geography, so you are always keenly aware of just how much danger everyone is in. At one point, the family jumps into a canoe to try to get away, and when they get too close to the shore, one of the lions hooks a paw in and pulls the canoe closer. No matter what they do to try to push back away from it, the lion won't let them go. It is playful and predatory and terrifying.

What I find most impressive is that they ever thought this was going to somehow convince people to get involved in animal rights. Imagine some terrible pseudo-reggae tripe about animal rights playing as the following plays at the end of the closing credits:

“The lions that appeared to be 'killed' in this film are all back to playing with their friends. But the animals that are being slaughtered in Africa are a reality. Many species are near extinction.

In the eleven years since we began filming 'Roar,' in most areas of Africa, 90 per cent of the animals have been killed.

These are thinking, feeling beings who need your help to survive.

Something must be done, and there is much you can do:

Contribute to one of the many effective wildlife organizations.

Organize protests in front of stores that sell wild animals skins, furs or ivory.

Show your disgust with anyone who buys or owns furs or ivory.

If at all possible, plan a trip to an African country with a good conservation record. Tourism is the best incentive for preserving wildlife.

The preservation of Africa's precious wildlife heritage is the responsibility of the whole world.”

And the entire time, the white guy reggae with the chorus “Too late for tears” keeps playing, and no matter how much you agree with those sentiments, the end result is still me wanting to ask them how in the hell the film that just played is meant to illuminate the ideas laid out in that closing scroll. It is like putting a serious scroll about the importance of getting people proper mental health care at the end of John Carpenter's “Halloween.” It's just lunacy when you look at the context. The message of the film, just based on what you actually see happen onscreen, appears to be “Holy shit, lions are terrifying.”

I'm giving this an “A” letter grade because I find it utterly absorbing, start to finish. I don't know if I think it's a good film, but it is a powerfully compelling film. Perhaps my favorite kind of strange or insane film is the personal passion project, and “Roar” is one of the most remarkable examples of this. Needlessly expensive, and impossible to imagine coming from anyone else, “Roar” is a major discovery, and when it arrives in theaters, I urge you to take the biggest group you can find. You'll want witnesses who can back you up when you try to describe the film to people later, because even after seeing it three times, I still can't believe the damn thing exists.

“Roar” will be in theaters and then on VOD and Blu-ray later this year.