“Who would win in a fight — a gorilla covered in armor or a cobra that spits acid from its fangs?” These were the type of brain-busters my poor parents would have to answer when I was in elementary school; my oversized head filled with useless questions about hypothetical battles between vicious animals I conjured up in my imagination.
It didn’t matter how much time my mom and dad actually wasted making educated guesses just to shut me up. Any answer they gave was the wrong one. Answer gorilla, and I’d ask how that was possible since the venomous acid would easily disintegrate the ape’s iron suit. Answer snake, and I’d wonder why they didn’t consider the limited distance the projectile poison could actually travel airborne, especially if the gorilla climbed a tree or something. Grown-ups.
Flash forward 25 years and I’m sitting on the edge of my seat watching the wildlife documentary African Cats as a majestic alpha lion stands at the edge of a river in Kenya staring into the nostrils of a hissing crocodile. My boyhood sense of wonder rushes back as the predators refuse to give way to one another. The visceral scene is so captivating, I’m not the least bit interested why neither of them reaches for their nunchakus.
But this isn’t make-believe like so many other family movies that play for entertainment value alone. There are some important lessons to be learned here; this is a story about an animal’s fight to survive in its natural environment. And while it does get the Disney gloss-over that keeps it sitting safely on a G-rated level, kids will still get the idea of just how the circle of life works without seeing the more savage parts of nature (translation: the big cats roar and bite, but they also mind their manners while ripping apart a gazelle with the help of some kid-friendly editing).
As the third theatrical U.S. release from the Disney offshoot known as Disneynature (Earth and Oceans debuted on Earth Day in 2009 and 2010 respectively), African Cats is in good hands with directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill capturing breathtaking footage while combing the African savanna. The narrative, which divides its time between a pride of lions and a coalition of cheetahs, is not unlike what you may find on the Discovery Channel or inside the pages of National Geographic. Once magnified for the big screen, however, the film takes on a whole new dynamic.
In African Cats, Scholey and Fothergill, both of whom have spent their lives working in some capacity in wilderness TV and film, set up shop on the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya. Here they follow Sita, a lone female cheetah and her five helpless cubs, and Layla, an aging lioness and her single cub who are both protected by her pride. Also at the center of the lion’s story is the pride’s defender Fang, identified by the dangling tooth he earned in a lion vs. lion scuffle. To the north, another dominant beast named Kali and his four intimidating sons wait for their opportunity to journey south and invade new territory.
African Cats comes on the heels of the IMAX film Born to be Wild 3D, which features playful baby elephants and orangutans, and The Last Lions, a much darker and overall fulfilling nature documentary set in Botswana that explores more complex themes including grief and abandonment. But it doesn’t break new ground in its recently industrious genre. Instead, it manages to be relevant by photography alone. Without the sweeping aerial shots and the rest of the highly impressive camerawork, the documentary doesn’t add up to more than standard, harmless wilderness fare for the kiddos.
Even with narration by Mr. Badass himself, Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, The Incredibles), African Cats refuses to let its claws out to take advantage of his smooth voiceover. I jest, but imagine how hilarious it would have been to have Jackson deliver the line, “I have had it with these motherfucking lions and their motherfucking manes!” At least parents could’ve use the Snakes on a Plane reference next time one of their kids asks if a lion with a laser beam really is king of the jungle.