'The Last Lions'

Gripping wildlife docu follows a suddenly single mom's struggle to keep herself and her cubs alive in the Botswana wetlands.

Gripping wildlife docu “The Last Lion” follows a suddenly single mom’s struggle to keep herself and her cubs alive in the Botswana wetlands. With its anthropomorphized narrative and character approach, the beautifully shot pic is less akin to recent nature features than to the Disney “True-Life Adventures” of yore, albeit with considerably less cuteness; this tough (if seldom gory) tale isn’t for younger children. Sans Imax or 3D, National Geographic project will need strong word of mouth to gain theatrical traction (platform rollout begins Feb. 18), though it’s as deserving of sleeper status as “March of the Penguins.” Worldwide ancillary life should be long.

Opening informs that over the last half-century, lion populations shrank from 450,000 to as few as 20,000. Doing her best to keep the species going is the lioness dubbed Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”), who at the start is attacked by an invading pride ousted from their native territory by encroaching human communities. She survives this fierce faceoff, but her mate is mortally injured.

As sonorous narrator Jeremy Irons (who voiced “The Lion King’s” plummy villain) intones, the conquering pride would kill Ma di Tau’s three cubs to “wipe the gene slate clean” if they were discovered. So she must take them into unknown terrain, crossing onto an island whose perils include alligators and buffalo herds, the latter providing both prey and an aggressive, sharp-horned enemy. Adding still more danger, a lioness gang has followed the refugees’ trail, knowing that Ma di Tau’s offspring won’t remain helpless for long.

As directed by Dereck Joubert, the suspenseful narrative brings tragedy as well as a surprising, triumphant late shift in power dynamics. Pic is careful to point out we have no way of knowing how closely these magnificent creatures’ emotions resemble our own, but nonetheless does a fine job stirring strong empathy for our hairy heroine’s travails.

Experts might be taken aback by some atypical behaviors on display here (the production materials note that Duba Island’s lions are indeed unusual in their water hunting and other adaptive habits), and the pic does take a few editorial liberties: It was shot over the course of several years, though events we see appear to take place within several weeks or months. Still, the engrossing results never feel over-manipulated. If narration text occasionally borders on the pretentious, Irons’ richly textured delivery pulls it all off.

Camera, editing and sound design are all tops. Alex Wurman’s score reps another strong contribution, though the expiration date on that wailing-wordless-female-vocal thing must surely be nigh.

The Last Lions

Botswana-U.S.

Production

A National Geographic Entertainment (in U.S.) release of an NGE presentation in association with Wildfire Films. Produced by Beverly Joubert, Dereck Joubert, Lisa Truitt, Chris Miller. Executive producers, Tim Kelly, David Beal, Daniel Battsek, Adam Leipzig. Directed, written by Dereck Joubert.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Dereck Joubert; editor, Susan Scott; music, Alex Wurman; narrator, Jeremy Irons; sound designer (Dolby SR), Beverly Joubert; supervising sound editor, Juli Vandenberg; re-recording mixer, Mark Phillips. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (Cinema Safari), Jan. 13, 2011. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Narrator: Jeremy Irons. (English dialogue)

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