A cheetah, a lioness, and your mom might have more in common than you think—or so suggests DisneyNature’s latest endeavor, “African Cats.” An anthropomorphizing wildlife documentary from Disney’s nature film division, the movie is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and takes viewers through two and a half years in the lives of two lion prides and a family of cheetahs. Though “African Cats” boasts stunning visuals, it has little else to recommend it.
The lions of the River Pride live in the hills south of the Mara River in Kenya. The pride boasts a horde of lionesses, including protagonist Mara, a young cub whose elderly mother Layla is on her last legs. Fang is the male of the pride and charged with protecting the females and their cubs. But just north of the river lives Kali, a powerful lion with four strong sons and a goal to expand his territory. Caught in the middle is Sita the cheetah, a ‘single mom’ trying to raise her five new cubs to adulthood. With all these feisty felines fighting for survival, what happens next is anybody’s guess.
As befitting a nature film, the visuals of “African Cats” do not disappoint. In press accounts, co-director Alastair Fothergill has attributed the panoramic beauty of the film to the talents of camera operators Owen Newman, Simon King and Sophie Darlington. They used the cutting-edge Phantom high-speed camera to shoot the film’s eponymous cats at 450 frames per second. The results—hypnotic sequences that showcase every hair and muscle of the majestic animals as they play, rest, hunt, and do everything in between—are truly captivating.
But once audiences nestle into the luxury of the beautiful imagery, “African Cats” starts to drag. Too much of the 90-minute narrative consists of slow-moving stand-offs with little payoff. Even the initially exciting hunting sequences start to look monotonously similar about halfway through the film’s runtime.
A few mesmerizing sequences stand out above the rest. At one point, Fang faces off with a crocodile. The two beasts roar at each other, snouts inches apart in a grippingly tense encounter. Later, during a thunderstorm, lightning illuminates the sky as Sita and her cubs sit shivering and drenched; the high-resolution image of such majestic creatures in a pathetically vulnerable state is startlingly affecting.
But unfortunately, sequences like these are few and far between. With so much time on their hands, audiences cannot help but fixate on Jackson’s over-the-top, never-ending narration. His inflated storytelling, combined with an overly dramatic score complete with choral passages and sound effects like artificially intensified heartbeats, exposes the documentary’s desperate attempts to infuse its images with drama. Eventually, the film starts to border on soap opera; its conceits detract from the power of the visuals themselves.
Along the same lines, the film’s uncredited storywriters’ attempts to impose a theme onto this exhibition of nature are distracting and inauthentic. In a forced statement about the all-conquering bonds of motherhood, Layla’s efforts to protect Mara are constantly paralleled with Sita’s attempts to protect her cubs. Grand, sweeping pronouncements like “there is nothing better for a lion than close companionship” and “there is no greater bond than that between a lioness and her cub” inspire skepticism about the film’s claim to scientific accuracy.
Beyond this, the film suffers from an uneven editing structure which confuses its message. The film repeatedly claims to be about the bonds of family, but the storylines on screen fail to maintain such consistency. “African Cats” cannot seem to decide whether it is about motherhood or about Kali’s takeover and its consequences for both cheetahs and lions. It also can’t seem to decide whether to be a scientific documentary or a narrative drama; it reaches for the best of both worlds and narrowly misses success in both.
All in all, “African Cats” may have been better off as a 30-minute IMAX film to be displayed in science museums instead of being inflated into a dragging full-length feature that desperately reaches for an elusive theme. Still, animal lovers of all ages can revel in the beauty of its imagery. Indeed, for those who walk into theaters expecting to take the images at face value, the film could definitely be an enjoyable experience. Critical consumers of documentary film, however, should probably look elsewhere.