Like so many family-targeting animal documentaries since March of the Penguins, this one tells a story of parents and children.
"Fang's broken tooth is a mark of his bravery," according to Samuel L. Jackson's narration in African Cats. The lion pants in close-up, his loose tooth hanging from his jaw. While it may not be true that any other creature in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve sees this tooth as such a mark, it's the film's favorite sort of pronouncement, unlikely but grand.
Like so many family-targeting animal documentaries since March of the Penguins, this one tells a story of parents and children. Here the focus is on mothers -- the aging lioness Kali and the ever alert cheetah Sita -- who not long ago "fought against forces that sought to destroy them." These forces are apparently natural, including weather, starvation, hyenas, and other lions (this film doesn't present a global warming backdrop). But they are characterized here as brutal and sinister, set against mothers who are brave, smart, forward-thinking, and, much like Fang, egregiously anthropomorphized.
And so: as the camera pans across wide, dry plains, the lioness and the cheetah are situated in their separate spaces. This has to do with what they do as species, as lions regularly stay in prides and cheetahs function solo, but also underlines the contortions the film must make to pull together one story. Cutting from one experience to another, the film is repeatedly caught out, as themes and events don't match, and as the narration must connect assorted dots. So, the film suggests that both mothers find reasons to live in their cubs, even as all are at very different life stages: the lioness has one half grown cub, Mara, and the cheetah has five babies, their eyes barely open as the film begins. The film also suggests the mothers are dealing with similar crises, as the dry season sends herds of meat (gazelles, zebras, buffalo) even though their experiences are visibly disparate.
Still, the film presses on, framing these experiences with dramatic music and florid language that describes the cats' seeming emotions. Early on, Kali's pride head down to a watering hole, where the female lions are approached by hungry crocodiles. As the camera closes in on their impending encounter, Fang makes a move, roaring and showing the teeth that are still inside his mouth until the crocodile closest to his females backs down. "Today the pride's protector," intones Jackson, "has earned his keep."
Fang is less successful when facing down another pride, led by a frankly splendid male with four brawny sons. As they make their way across their own territory, for now on the other side of the river, they are magnificent as a group, the camera tracking their slow steps for long minutes. The narration holds that they're intent on a hostile takeover of Fang's pride, that the father wants to possess all the females while is sons may be inclined to kill and eat the cubs, because they're Fang's (this allusion to cannibalism is not a little disconcerting). In a first battle, Fang takes off, leaving the females to fight off the invasion. During the battle, Kali is injured, and so begins her slow, sad decline. By the time she reaches its end, even the storm clouds overhead seem in sync with her experience -- and so provide a neat metaphorical image for the film!
Awkward intermittent cuts to Sita show her discovering the difficulty of "herding cats" (yes, the joke is that bad), and also contending with hunger, hyenas, and elephants. While training the cubs to hunt on their own and avoid trouble, she actually loses a couple of them to hyenas ("They are gone forever," says Jackson, as the camera stays steady on the admittedly regal-looking cat, gazing out at the plains as her survivors clamber all over her).
Indeed, the cinematography throughout African Cats is stunning. Whether the camera shoots from a long distance, displaying stretches of flatlands, hills or sky, or the frames are close, on lions' shoulders or jaw-lines as they make their way toward their prey, the imagery conveys the remarkable daily lives they lead. This only makes the narration seem more like overkill, however.
It's hard to accept the conclusions drawn, that Kali makes a deliberate decision to be nice to her sister so she'll look after Mara following Kali's death (somehow, plotting a distant and fundamentally abstract future and manipulating family members seem like someone else's story, not lions'). More distracting, the narration lapses into clichés to make obvious points (as the cheetah cubs spend some time at play, Jackson observes, "Cubs will be cubs") or pull together random events into a narrative order and perhaps a moral lesson, to boot (young lions in a river with crocodiles are "are in over their heads in every sense").
Parents should know that a couple of hunting scenes are harsh, even if the film cuts away before you see too much blood all over the lions' faces. But the Sam Jackson fans among these parents might be appeased when he finally, almost, does what Sam Jackson does so famously (and so often), that rise in volume that ensures he has your attention. As the mean lions make their way closer and closer to Fang's crew, Jackson observes, "And they are still the most powerful force in the land!"