I can’t even count the number of wildlife documentaries I’ve seen over my lifetime. Heck, I was sadden when John Forsythe passed away; he played a big part in my childhood. Not for Dynasty, but for his role as narrator in the television series The World of Survival. So when I found out that Disney was coming out with an animal documentary, African Cats, I had to check it out.
The animals of the African Savannah have been favorite subjects of many wildlife film makers for a long, long time. And why not, the continent’s diverse assemblage of megafauna are the envy of the world. Plus, the daily dramas are so much more easily caught on tape on the open grasslands than say, deep forest. When the struggles of daily life play out with these kind of visuals and at such a large scale, it’s hard as a viewer not to be compelled, no matter how many times one has seen it in the past.
The movie follows the trials and tribulations of two mothers: a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and a lioness (Panthera leo). With Samuel L. Jackson narrating, you follow each as they raise cubs, hunt for their families, defend them from other predators, etc. I was a little surprised that they didn’t include the other great cat of Africa, the leopard (Panthera pardus).
Beyond that, the narration didn’t have anything of interest for me. It only got in the way a few times, mostly when they were glossing over facts for artistic license. But honestly though, most people aren’t watching this because it might be like William Blake’s “The Tyger”. Most people are going to watch this for the visuals.
And the cinematography delivers. Some shots of the animals were pretty amazing. I’m still wondering how the film got those panning shots of the cats walking. The landscapes were also capture very well. The sweeping majesty of the East African Plain looks even better on the big screen in high definition.
Being the nerdy naturalist that I am, what I thought was really cool was that they were able to capture some interactions between species that I had rarely seen on film before.
And it’s more than this Battle of Kruger remix. There were other interactions that made me sit up in attention. Obviously, much screen time is dedicating to the charismatic megafauna, but some of the smaller and lesser known members of the savannah ecosystem make an appearance in the film as well.
Finally, I know many people are critical of anthropomorphizing animals. I hold no such quandary. Certainly, the downside is that people make assumptions about the animals presented in the film in a fictionalized manner. But there is an upside: instead of taking it at face value, what if this film sparks a deeper interest for someone? To find out about the natural world beyond what films show? I still remember being 8 years old and watching with awe the penultimate scene in Eternal Enemies. Ntwydmala charging to Powers Boothe’s narration. It is one of the most emotionally riveting scenes I’ve witness in a film. At this point, it would be a convenient, apocryphal story if I said that was the moment that made me a naturalist. But, I cannot deny the impact it had.
African Cats is a G-rate movie. Take your kids. Perhaps they’ll fall asleep. Perhaps they’ll enjoy it well enough and move on. Or perhaps, it can spark a life long interest in the world beyond man.