Movie Review

The Last Lions

Film is a gripping tale of survival

“The Last Lions’’ follows a mother and her cubs. “The Last Lions’’ follows a mother and her cubs. (Beverly Joubert)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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When is a nature documentary more than a nature documentary — or less? “The Last Lions,’’ a knuckle-tightening film about animal survival on the plains of Botswana, spins such a linear narrative, with such clear plot arcs and structured dramatic moments, that you can feel the human hands pushing the story line into place, arranging the shots for the most compelling tale possible. Your sympathies are roused, but so are your suspicions.

In any event, the film is an astonishing visual experience and at times almost profoundly suspenseful. Written and directed by the long-established wildlife filmmaker Dereck Joubert, this National Geographic production begins by underscoring the alarming decline in Africa’s wild lion population, from 450,000 to 20,000 in 50 years. As “The Last Lions’’ begins, we see the effect of encroaching human development on the big cats: One pride of lions is forced into another’s territory and a bloody fight for dominance ensues.

If you’re thinking about taking very young children, by the way, the shot of a male lion with his eye ripped open to the bloody socket will make you wish you hadn’t. There are further hardships in store as Joubert follows one female as she strikes out for a new home with her three young cubs. The journey involves a long swim across a crocodile-infested swamp, and not all ends well. A later sequence involving one of the cubs is one of the most heartbreaking moments you may have at the movies this year. Leave the small fry at home.

Joubert has written a tense, tight narrative about the lioness — dubbed Ma di Tau, or “mother of lions’’ in the local dialect — and he has cast Jeremy Irons as the film’s narrator. Since the actor once played the villainous uncle in Disney’s “The Lion King,’’ this is a little like hiring the Big Bad Wolf for a documentary about chicken farming. Irons gives Ma di Tau’s struggle to provide food for her cubs before time runs out a ripe, sometimes overripe, dimension, and when the script has him seeming to read the animal’s thoughts, “The Last Lions’’ tips into an anthropomorphism as unnecessary as it is absurd.

The basic situation captured by Joubert’s patient camera is more than enough to recommend the film. The lioness comes to ground on a large island she shares with a herd of water buffalo who are anything but easy prey. On the contrary, they’re prone to counterattack, and the big cat spends much of the film seeming to strategize the best method for a kill. Complicating matters are those crocodiles, a local band of hyenas, and the invading pride of lions, led by a half-blind matriarch Joubert dubs Silver Eye. I guess “Scar’’ was already taken.

“The Last Lions’’ expends so much energy ginning up dramatic conflict between the animals that you may start to wonder what really happened — how much of Ma di Tau’s story is the product of careful shaping and editing. At the same time, many of the sequences are so jaw-droppingly elemental that they possess a natural drama of their own. When the lioness daringly takes to the water for an aquatic attack on the buffalo, you can’t help but root for the hunter and flinch from the bumbling but driven savagery of the attempt.

So why the cute animal games? Joubert wants to get us involved and outraged — the closing credits send us to the Cause an Uproar campaign to save Africa’s big cats — and he thinks turning a lioness into a heroic furry person is the way to do it. Maybe he’s right. And maybe he’s sacrificing an animal’s genuine wildness in order to protect it.

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THE LAST LIONS Written and directed by: Dereck Joubert

Narrated by: Jeremy Irons

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 88 minutes

Rated: PG (some violent images involving animal life)

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