Lions and cheetahs raise their young in the beautiful but harsh wilds of an African savanna in African Cats, a documentary from Disneynature narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson tells the story of two cats — lions and cheetahs. The lions live in two prides on either side of a river, with our focus being on lioness Layla, the oldest female of the pride headed by male lion Fang, and her daughter Mara. In addition to keeping Mara fed and alive, Layla has to worry about the reign of Fang, which is threatened by Kali, a strong lion from the other side of the river who has three strong lion sons and is looking to invade Fang’s territory.
Cheetahs, we’re told, are more solitary, so Sita, mother of five, has to hunt for and protect her young on her own. Not as big as the lions, she has some speed on her side.
In both cases, the males of the species are nearly as much of a threat as the other animals looking to eat Sita’s and Layla’s young. If Kali defeats Fang, he and his sons will kill or chase off the current crop of cubs so as to make room for their own children by the lionesses. And even if Kali doesn’t move in, Fang, as current leader of the pack, gets the “lion’s share” of any kills the lionesses make. To feed their cubs and themselves, the females have to grab what they can before Fang arrives. Meanwhile, Sita has to face down three cheetah males who seem to be threatening her cubs. Males really come off as the villains of this movie, the “guys suck” message being the flip side of the “moms are awesome” message that, along with the “gazelles, zebras and wildebeests are delicious” message, is the main takeaway from this movie.
There must be some kind of happy medium between clinical Latin-species-name-using science-class-film-style nature documentaries and this Disneyfied version that gives the animals cutesy names and all but turns them into supporting characters from The Lion King. Some of the wild of this wildlife film is lost when we’re made to see the cheetah not just as a fascinating and beautiful animal but as a super mom who is worried about getting her cubs a good education. I suppose it makes them just like us — but I don’t need the cheetahs to be like me. Lions and cheetahs are pretty cool by themselves — just watching a cheetah run is captivating — mostly for the ways they are not like us. And peoplefying the animals makes some of the realities of the circle of life (i.e. cute baby animals getting eaten and sometimes moms die) even more jarring. The whole male-vs.-female approach to cubs is made all the more unsettling because of the way the movie turns them into “moms” and “dads.”
I felt worn down with cuteness by African Cats, which is too bad because it really does feature some amazing animal footage.
Crocodiles, zebras, elephants and hippos make cameo appearances here and along with the lions and cheetahs really do remind you of how exciting and diverse the animal kingdom can be. The visible animal universe of urban Manchester, where I spend a lot of my time, is largely squirrels, house cats and dogs on leashes. It is fun being reminded of the more exotic animal life out there. It would be even more fun if its wildness, its dramatic uncommonness to suburban America, could be allowed to shine through. B-
Rated G. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, African Cats is an hour and 29 minutes long and distributed by Disneynature.