Awonderfully old-fashioned adventure with an up-to-date message about the shrinking natural world, “To Walk With Lions” offers deluxe Cinemascope thrills Lowell Thomas would have sworn by, plus a sober father-son theme to which modern auds can relate. It also has a perfect cast, capped by an outstanding performance from Richard Harris, as lion man George Adamson. Pic handsomely fills almost-empty niche of ripping yarn with both family appeal and serious adult undertones.
Picking up quite a while after “Born Free” and its spinoffs ended, new fact-based tale centers on youngish Tony Fitzjohn (BBC vet John Michie), a cocky Londoner rousting about East Africa in the late 1980s. When he loses a cushy safari-driving job in Kenya (he was in it only for the hot-and-cold-running tourist chicks), the beat-up ex-pat ends up looking for any old thing to get him back home. What he lands is a temp gig as maintenance man on the rough compound run by bushy-bearded Adamson and his white-haired brother, Terence (Ian Bannen). Turns out that Elsa and her cubs, back in the ’60s, were only the start of their work, the “rehabilitation” of zoo lions for the wild. The brothers, with scarcely a shirt between them, are fairly wild themselves, providing much curmudgeonly humor.
At first, Tony is understandably wary of his many fur-bearing charges. “Being attacked by lions is an occupational hazard,” explains George, casually puffing on his pipe and staring off into the horizon. “But if you stay in tune with them, the risk is small.” The younger man does tune in, finding some harmony with the childless codger. Terence, far more enamored of elephants than lions (let alone people), is somewhat upset by the string of young femmes who follow Tony back to the camp, and he’s even more incensed when his brother’s wife, Joy (Honor Blackman), shows up after years of absence.
Hardly the benign figure portrayed in “Born Free” (she neglected to send any profits from her book to George and his felines), she leaves soon after arriving, only to be murdered by one of her servants. This offscreen event, foreshadowing even darker things to come, is so muffled in the telling, it’s easy to miss altogether.
On the other hand, the callow Tony’s growing relationship with Lucy (Kerry Fox), an English anthropologist living with local tribes, is perhaps too heavily underlined. Other major deficit is a cliche-ridden orchestral score, full of tube-movie cues when African modalities and rhythms would more effectively convey pic’s volatile and bittersweet tones.
Helmer Carl Schultz, the Hungarian-born Aussie who made “Careful, He Might Hear You,” handles the cast, including animals and some animatronic puppets, with a pleasingly unobtrusive hand, getting the best out of the sometimes undisciplined Fox and providing a memorable turn for “Star Wars” vet Hugh Quarshie, as an urbane African entrepreneur. The Scottish Michie, who was in fact raised in Kenya, makes a strong, bare-chested leading man in the old-school vein, with results that will please elder fans of “Hatari” and “Zulu” as well as younger Greenpeace types.
Best of all, Schultz guides Harris to one of the Irish thesp’s most memorable efforts — all the more remarkable because almost no emotion flickers across the reclusive cat man’s face.
Beautifully lensed pic needs careful handling: If marketed as Disney-type fare, parents of young children may be shocked when graphic maulings occur and will certainly be disturbed by the ending, which finds this grassy region overrun by poachers, bandits and government corruption. It’s interesting that Kenyan officials, wanting to turn around some nightmarish events, fully backed Canuck writer Keith Ross Leckie’s wart-filled script, which was partially based on memoirs by Fitzjohn and Adamson. They also provided (and protected) locations very close to Kora, the original “Born Free” compound.