African Cats (review)

African Cats green light

Disney’s new nature documentary division — called simply Disneynature — got itself off to a rough start a few years ago. Its first outing, 2009’s Earth, was an unsatisfying mishmash of bits excised from the BBC’s much acclaimed — and very much longer — TV series Planet Earth. Oceans, in 2010, suffered from screensaver-itis and poor narration. But now, with its third film, African Cats, Disneynature hits its stride, triumphantly. (Cats is just now getting a belated theatrical release in the U.K.; it was in cinemas this time last year in North America, and is now available on DVD in the U.S. and Canada.) Directed by celebrated BBC nature filmmaker Alastair Fothergill — also behind Planet Earth — and Keith Scholey, this is a gorgeously photographed, astonishingly intimate look at two big-cat families in the Maasai Mara, a game preserve in Kenya that continues into the Serengeti. We have never seen lions and cheetahs like this before; you won’t believe it can have been possible for cameras to get so close without disturbing the animals they’re watching. But high-def technology achieves something magical: we become a part of the River Pride of lions, and particularly close to fading hunter Layla and her young daughter, feisty Mara; and part of solitary Sita’s family, living the cheetah lifestyle that sees a mother left to fend for her litter of cubs on her own. These are magnificent creatures with a physicality quite different from our own, and we revel in their strength and their prowess, assisted by the vivid narration of Patrick Stewart (Samuel L. Jackson in the North American version). Yet these lions and cheetahs are not so different from us, either. Drama! tragedy! comedy! cuteness! Much of it is very familiar, and all of it is very moving. Bring Kleenex. And stay through the hilarious end credits. I’m now very much looking forward to Disneynature’s fourth film, Chimpanzee, now playing in the U.S. and Canada: it looks very much in the same intimate vein.

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