Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson
Do you know what is amazing about nature? For me, it is that, despite being so complex, it unfolds without any evident intervention and more often than not, without the notice it deserves. You might even say nature just happens “naturally”. You might not though if you a) had no desire to make anyone’s eyes roll back into their head and b) if you were the creative team behind Disney Nature’s third offering, AFRICAN CATS. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey are both gentlemen with backgrounds in nature photography – Fothergill even worked on Disney Nature’s EARTH and the wildly successful BBC series that film was based on, Planet Earth. There is no question that they do an incredible job capturing breathtaking shots of a lush savanna in southwestern Kenya and its awesome inhabitants but what they do with them is nothing short of manipulation.
Samuel L. Jackson tells us from the very beginning that AFRICAN CATS is the story of two mothers, a lioness named Layla and a cheetah named Sita, and their struggles to raise their cubs in the wild. My first thought was how does Jackson know their names? Had they been formally introduced? I was then told that animals on preserves, like the Maasai Mara National Reserve where AFRICAN CATS was shot, are given names. Fine, he had me there. And surely the experts on the preserve have been observing these majestic animals for years, therefore able to make educated assumptions about their behaviour patterns and motivations. When Jackson laments about one lioness’s sadness as she limps off into the sunset to die alone though, complete with heart-tugging string score accompaniment of course, it becomes a bit of a stretch to think anyone can get that deep into a lion’s head. That said, when the action on screen gets violent – and it does, Mom’s and Dad’s – Jackson sounds as if he might at any moment break into his famous PULP FICTION speech. Those lesser animals will know the lion is the lord when he lays his vengeance upon them alright.
Like any documentary, you cannot know how your subject matter will play out ahead of time. You have to pick what you think is going to be most compelling and follow it in hopes that it lives up to its potential. Plenty happens in AFRICAN CATS and it is engaging action. Empires are challenged and fought for; hunts happen regularly; there are even plenty of “Awwww …” moments between the cubs and their prides. The melodramatic elements of the script that are assigned to the action feel forced and thin though, binding nature too tightly to the story just often enough to throw the film’s authenticity into question. Did this really happen when it did or did they move the action around so that the narrative still made sense? We can’t know for sure so we have to take their word for it. When you dress something up as much as AFRICAN CATS does nature though, it makes me wonder how much of that word I can really take.