Director Gilles de Maistre had good intentions at heart bringing an animal activist message to the mainstream with “Mia and the White Lion.” The craft and care it took to capture a portrait of a headstrong young girl and her unconventional friendship with a white lion is astounding, considering the filming spanned a few years so the actress could authentically bond with the animal (under strict supervision, of course). This sweetly sentimental feature — aimed squarely at the family demographic, particularly those with small children — will assuredly connect with animal lovers, with one big caveat: There’s a whiplash-inducing reveal that could prove traumatic to some of those same folks.
Ten-year-old Mia Owen (Daniah De Villiers) has recently moved from London to South Africa and is struggling with lots of complicated feelings. Her frustration and angst over this sudden lifestyle change has prevented her from fitting in at her new school, as she gets in fights with classmates and teachers alike. She also lashes out at her caring parents, Alice (Mélanie Laurent) and John (Langley Kirkwood), who’ve dragged her and her on-the-spectrum brother Mick (Ryan Mac Lennan) across the world to manage a lion farm that provides animals to parks, zoos, and research facilities. Mia is as ferocious as the prowling, caged creatures behind those fences.
In order to acclimate the kids to their new way of living, John and Alice give them a present: a rare white lion cub named Charlie (played by animal actor Thor). Not only will this beautiful, blue-eyed beast be their new pet, he’ll also be a boon for their burgeoning business, which includes big plans to encourage tourism. Though Mia is initially reticent to accept Charlie’s adorable advances, the pair become best buddies, sharing an unshakeable bond. Their co-dependent spirits become intertwined, so much so that they can’t be separated for an elongated period of time, like when Mia goes to soccer camp and both become listless and depressed. Their relationship also transforms her into a compassionate, empathetic soul, especially when dealing with Mick’s night terrors and stimming.
As the years pass, their future as friends becomes uncertain once Charlie triples in size and his primal instincts begin taking over. Further stress on the family is added when Mick’s need for specialized care grows urgent and John aligns himself with a shady, sleazy businessman, Dirk (Brandon Auret). To protect his family, John orders Charlie to be sent away. However, Mia then learns the dark, devastating truth about the family business: The picturesque preserve is actually a breeding farm used to supply lions for “canned hunts” — a vile, legal practice where the trophy is killed within a confined area. Mia and Charlie’s loyalty is put to the test as the pair escape, seeking the nearest lion sanctuary.
Director de Maistre harnesses yellow-blue color theory for maximum visual impact. This beguiling palette is echoed in the wardrobe, cinematography, and color timing, pumping up the saturated sky against the wheaten savanna, and the blues of Charlie’s eyes against his cream-colored coat. Cinematographer Brendan Barnes showcases gorgeous sweeping vistas during the golden hour. His shots of indigenous animals such as hippos, giraffes, and zebras roaming free, coupled with Julien Rey’s editing and de Maistre’s documentary skillset, give the film the feel of a travelogue — although it’s odd that they’d make a country that supports canned hunts look as enticing as it does.
Screenwriters Prune de Maistre and William Davies have crafted a strong female protagonist, although not a heroine children should seek to emulate. Sure, she’s fearless and adventurous, but to a fault as her impulsive hubris gets her into sticky situations. She hitchhikes, tempts fate playing with her feisty four-legged friend, and steals a truck with the hungry lion hidden in the covered cab — from which it could escape and maul bystanders. That last bit is played lightly for humor, though it’s hard to ignore the danger that could ensue.
Yet where this tale goes off its rails is with the reveal. The first half of the film provides a sense of security with an abundance of cute animals (and gratuitous closeups milking it), then the second half rips away any naïveté. The message, while absolutely necessary to draw attention to this heinous type of hunt, is ham-handled and jarring. It’s akin to learning the family dog wasn’t taken to a farm in the country to run free, but rather to the vet to be euthanized. John’s motivations and rationalizations are never properly set up or thought out. Did he restart his business with a conservationist intent, only to abandon that once it proved financially unfeasible? Either way, it doesn’t make any sense that he would jeopardize his familial relationships for his work. The complex family dynamics are all back-loaded, and given a conclusion that stretches credulity as it wraps things up far too easily.
Despite a heartfelt sentiment that one person has the power to uproot societal structure and inspire change, and the filmmakers’ desire to raise awareness about an abhorrent practice, packaging it in a family-friendly narrative proves to be wildly problematic.