Paging through the press packet of African Cats, I came across this statement, which is attributed to Jean-François Camilleri, President of Disneynature: “Disneynature films are story-driven. African Cats is an incredible drama with great characters and powerful images and belongs on the big screen. Story really is key – whether it’s an animated film, a comedy, a thriller or a nature film, people go to the cinema for great stories.” I was struck by this. Is Camilleri intentionally trying to misrepresent what a documentary, even a nature documentary, is supposed to be? It can be argued that every living thing has a “story” by virtue of its very existence, but I hardly think the animal kingdom operates under rules of plot, character, theme, and tone. What he’s describing is a movie, not a documentary.
African Cats, the third of Disneynature’s annual Earth Day releases, would be adequate material for a fictional drama, even for younger audiences. As a documentary, it’s spectacularly shot, but it feels manufactured. Filmed over two and a half years in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, directors Keith Scholey and Alastiar Fothergill made it a point to “cast” the film by actively seeking out cats facing the greatest challenges. In other words, they were being selective, looking for the most dramatic stories to capture on film. Couple this with a narration screenplay by Scholey and John Truby, which assigns names and roles to the cats. The film even gives Scholey and Owen Newman credit for original story. Topping it off is a beautifully written but emotionally manipulative score Nicholas Hooper. With all this in mind, it seems to me that the intention wasn’t to make a documentary, but to force fictitious elements on actual subjects.
The film, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, focuses on several felines struggling to survive in the wild. One is Fang, a lion whose battle scar is a tooth hanging limply out of his mouth. He’s the self-appointed leader of the River Pride, which dominates an area south of the Mara River. On the north side is Kali, who, along with his four sons, plots to cross over onto the south side, drive out Fang, and take over his pride. At the start of the film, the river waters are high and infested with crocodiles, and for Kali, that means he cannot cross over. But the waters will eventually recede. Will Fang be able to stand his ground and protect his pride? He may be a dominant male, but that doesn’t mean he’s the strongest and bravest lion. In fact, it’s the lionesses who give the pride its real strength. They are, after all, the ones who do the hunting.
Another cat is Mara, a six-month-old lion cub who is a part of Fang’s pride. She’s devoted to her mother, Layla, who was once the most experienced hunter in all the River Pride; she’s now old, and as the film progresses, she sustains several injuries that weaken her even further. Her daughter’s survival depends on her being accepted by the other lionesses. It also depends on protecting her from Kali and his sons, who can invade at any time. Eventually, Mara’s loyalty to her mother will be tested.
Finally, there’s Sita, a cheetah living in the open grasslands between the lion prides. She has just given birth to a litter of cubs, and as you may have guessed, they’re absolutely adorable. As a single mom, she faces numerous challenges on a daily basis. She regularly has to leave them alone to hunt for food, and although cheetahs are capable of running at high speeds, they can only do so in thirty-second bursts, meaning they can quickly become exhausted. They’re known for their velocity but not so much for their strength, and this poses a risk when dealing with predators that travel in packs. She must also protect them from the dangers of the wild, including hyenas, lions – and, most notably, a group of adult male cheetahs. As is the case with any mother, her goal is to prepare her cubs for life out in the real world. The day will eventually come when they must go out on their own and fend for themselves.
In order to ensure authenticity, Scholey and Fothergill sought out Dr. Sarah Durant, who’s from the Zoological Society of London and is considered one of the leading authorities on African cats. For me, this isn’t an issue of authenticity; I have no reason to doubt Durant’s assertion that big cats do in fact have unique personalities. The issue is that the filmmakers conceived of a generic, almost medieval feuding family plot and applied it to their subjects. This is not what a documentary is supposed to do. I can give African Cats credit for its stunning cinematography and spectacular slow-motion shots, specifically those of Sita chasing after her prey – the film is without a doubt a visual delight. Alas, it was given a plot, and the plot was populated with characters. If it were advertised correctly, as a movie, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.
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