The thing that kept coming into my mind as I watched African Cats is “Boy, I miss Meerkat Manor.” I know that Animal Planet show isn’t the first show/film to try and anthropomorphize animals or even the best one, but sitting through four seasons with those adorable rodents really embedded that formula into my brain. African Cats plays with the same formula. It attributes names to the animals so that we can follow that animal’s storyline (although I can never tell one lion / cheetah / meerkat from another). Then it builds drama and suspense though a voice over that tells us what the animals are doing, are feeling and their motives for what they do. The voice over also reminds us whom we’re watching, you know, in case they all look alike. Within each of these stories there are the heroic ones and the villains, the courageous and the cowards. It’s all very black and white but the thin plots accompany some rather remarkable photography and at times, some pretty cute animals so it all makes for a very enjoyable evening.
African Cats tells the story of Mara, a lion cub who strives to grow up with her mother’s strength, spirit and wisdom. Fang is the leader of Mara’s pride who must defend his family from a rival lion. It also tells the story of Sita, a fearless cheetah and single mother of five mischievous newborns. This is the story of mothers and of the power and courage of a mother’s love. The males in all the stories are either tyrants, weaklings or just absent.
The photography is the main draw of this film. Go to a theater where you can see it big and clear and it will take your breath away. Director Keith Scholey along with Alastair Fothergill, here in the role of co-director, and Keith Scholey, here producing, are all part of the team that brought us the gorgeous and astounding BBC series, Planet Earth. In fact Disneynature’s other releases, Earth and Oceans, pillaged . . . I mean borrowed a large amount of the footage that was previously released on Planet Earth. However, the footage for African Cats seems to all have been shot specifically for this or at least not released on anything before. That said, all the collaborators poured the same amount of care and love into their current work as they ever have.
The only criticism I level at this film is the overbearing, overwrought voice over narration brought to you by Oscar nominated actor, Samuel L. Jackson. Now, some of that blame can be placed on whoever gave Sam lines like, “She is risking E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G now” and “He has become THE MOST DANGEROUS ENEMY to Mara” and other such hyperbole filled lines. But there were times that the lines just didn’t sound right, that Sam couldn’t sell the drama he was meant to. I assume Disney was thinking of the little ones, thinking that they would need to be spoon-fed the story, but unfortunately it brings the production value of the entire show down. Disney was not thinking of the little ones, however, when they were including shots of lions taking down zebras; their blood soaked maws coming up from their kill.
After getting home from African Cats I watched Oceans (it was on my Netflix Watch Instant Queue) to contrast and compare what Disney had done previously. Not only was it expertly narrated by Pierce Brosnan but it almost can’t fall into the trap of over-chatty voice over because it doesn’t try to tell us a story; it instead is content to show us a great variety of different wonderful and diverse sea life. In attempting to create a narrative, it seems that the filmmakers may have attempted something that was beyond their comfort zone with African Cats. Truth be told, the filmmakers should have trusted their footage and their audience more because the images they were able to capture told enough drama that did not need to be commented on.