These cats are true to their nature
After broadly surveying the planet in its first two releases, “Earth’’ and “Oceans,’’ Disney’s nature documentary division zooms in on the savanna for its latest offering, “African Cats.’’ The narrative-heavy film seems aimed even more squarely than the previous pair at grabbing the audience that helped “March of the Penguins’’ revive the genre. Under the direction of BBC wildlife documentary alums Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill, “Cats’’ looks majestic throughout, even if its Big Stories are sometimes forced at the expense of fleeting, fascinating little details.
The movie focuses on the trials of three animals in Kenya’s 580-square-mile Masai Mara National Reserve. There’s Fang, a ragged, aging lion whose leadership is being challenged by outsiders; Layla, a lioness in Fang’s pride fighting against debilitating injuries to protect her cub, Mara; and Sita, a cheetah instinctively tasked with safeguarding and feeding her five newborns all on her own. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the trio’s struggles — not with his Ezekiel bark, but with audible enthusiasm for Scholey and writing partner John Truby’s breathlessly dramatic script. “The northern kingdom is ruled by Fang’s greatest enemy, Kali,’’ Jackson darkly purrs over Tarantino-worthy slo-mo shots of an enormous, black-maned lion rolling in with his three sons. “Together they form the most powerful force in the land.’’
The filmmakers work hard to play up this Mufasa-and-Scar-style conflict, which makes it slightly disappointing when the story line finally fizzles with an off-camera resolution. (To be fair, this is wildlife cinematography, and Hollywood-perfect endings are obviously hard to come by. As Scholey notes in publicity materials, the film shot for 2 1/2 years, but got just 20 days of the really extraordinary stuff.) Things fall into place better with Layla’s moving drama. Sensing her time is up, she works on bonding with a sister lioness to ensure that Mara isn’t abandoned once she’s gone. Glimpses of an ominous gash on Layla’s back and the sound of her catching a zebra hoof in the chest are among the many hi-def images that will make you marvel here, and maybe shudder. Ditto for recurring tight close-ups of the battle-snapped, dangling tooth that earned Fang his name.
In the end, though, what you may remember best aren’t story-driving images and editorially massaged segments, but the quick, found moments: Fang roaring at a snapping crocodile on the bank of the Mara River, or a frustrated lion gnawing on a turtle’s shell. Scholey, Fothergill, and crew do impressive work, but we’re also reminded that wild animals don’t know from cues, marks, and scripts. That’s part of what makes them so compelling.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.