African Cats

Astounding wildlife footage is given a kid-friendly narrative hook, but never overly cuddlified, in Keith Scholey's "African Cats," the third installment in the Mouse House's Disneynature series.

Astounding wildlife footage is given a kid-friendly narrative hook, but never overly cuddlified, in Keith Scholey’s “African Cats,” the third installment in the Mouse House’s Disneynature series. Following the survival struggles of a cheetah mother and a pride of lions, the film captures a wealth of spectacular and wrenching conflicts, and even if its ability to spin a story out of the footage falls somewhat short of the gold standard set by “March of the Penguins,” it’s nonetheless a remarkably cohesive piece of work. Earth Day release should see beastly returns.

Filmed over two-and-a-half years in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, “African Cats” boasts the state-of-the-art nature lensing one would expect from co-director Alastair Fothergil, who set the genre benchmarks with “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet.” The pitiless portraits of predator and prey that those series cast are notably blunted here, and Samuel L. Jackson’s narration is genial and comforting when it needs to be. All the same, the unavoidable facts of life in the savanna will likely require some hard “circle of life” conversations between parents and young children afterward.

Giving all its protagonists “Lion King”-esque monikers, the film zeroes in on Sita, a cheetah with five newborn cubs, and Mara, a female lion cub whose mother, Layla, is nearing the end of the line. Mara’s pride is ruled by broken-toothed Fang, an aging alpha male who can still fend off a threatening crocodile or two, but who has little answer for stray male lion Kali, who, along with his fearsome sons, has aims to take his place in the pride. Pic is rather upfront about the Darwinian politics of lion culture — if Kali succeeds in usurping Fang, Mara and the rest of Fang’s cubs will all either be killed or driven out into the wild — and seeing this power struggle through to its very un-Disneylike denouement clearly presented the filmmakers with a potent narrative challenge.

Much less complicated, and more affecting, is Sita’s single-motherhood story. Pic offers an understandably biased, cheetah-centric view of the food chain: Sita’s capture of a gazelle is cause for celebration, and the cubs’ harassment of an unfortunate jackal is high comedy, yet the loss of several of the cubs to hungry hyenas is a tragedy. But watching the lithe cat defend her progeny against bigger and more numerous predators is awe-inspiring, and effectively conveys the sheer unlikelihood of any animal reaching adulthood in such a harsh environment.

Footage is all crystal-clear, from the empathetic close angles on the cats’ faces to the breathtaking sight of a cheetah in full flight. Sound design brings out a wealth of details — how the crew managed to record the snores of a lion pride so cleanly is a mystery — and scoring and editing work is topnotch.

African Cats

Production

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Fothergil/Scholey presentation of a Disneynature production. Produced by Keith Scholey, Alix Tidmarsh. Executive producer, Don Hahn. Directed by Keith Scholey. Co-director, Alastair Fothergil. Screenplay, Scholey, John Truby, from a story by Scholey, Owen Newman.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color prints), Newman, Sophia Darlington; editor, Martin Elsbury; music, Nicholas Hooper; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), Newman; re-recording mixers, Andrew Wilson, Matthew Gough; visual effects supervisor, Howard Jones; visual effects, Twenty4D VFX; associate producer, Jane Hamlin. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, April 12, 2011. MPAA Rating: G. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson.

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