Disneynature has carved a niche for itself in theatrical releases of nature films with varying success. Earth and Oceans were moderately profitable, though they suffered from an episodic structure that did not hold an audience's attention, and terrible narration that distracted pointlessly. The strongest release yet is African Cats, co-directed by one of the architects of Planet Earth, Alastair Fothergill. Following a pride of lions and a mother cheetah, African Cats considers apex predators and their interplay on the productive Mara veldt. The camerawork captures the vastness of the Masai Mara plains while not losing sight of the intimate details essential to understanding the bonds between mother and cub. It lacks the violence of The Last Lions, but none of its storytelling verve, and brings some needed energy to a fairly barren week for film.
African Cats follows events in the lives of Mara, a lion cub who is under the tutelage of her mother, Layla; Sita, a cheetah who is raising five hungry newborns; and Fang, a male lion who attempts to protect his family and territory from a rival lion. Survival on the bitter savanna is a perpetual struggle. Mara is only six months old, and as a lion cub has a 1 in 5 chance of surviving to adulthood. Life seems simple for a cub, awaiting kills and playing with siblings while learning gradually how to fend for themselves; Mara's days are numbered, however, as the mother is nursing an injury that is slowing her down. Sita must regularly leave her cubs to hunt for food, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Even if she makes a kill, cheetahs are regularly chased from it by hyenas or lions. Cheetahs are built for grace and speed, not for standing fights. They must lead a nomadic existence as they cannot defend a territory, and overland journeys in Africa are hazardous. Fang leads the River Pride, and as the king, he is surrounded by pretenders to the throne. His tooth is broken, and his strength is waning, but the spirit is always willing for a lion male. As filmed on the Masai Mara, the beauty and brutality of the wild is captured with scrupulous detail. Nothing is guaranteed, and none of these are characters protected by a screenplay. What is, is what must be.
The drama is thick and the stakes are absolute for these cats, as they are surrounded by enemies, and stalked always by hunger. The River Pride is being shadowed by Kali, who brings a lethal phalanx in his four sons. All that stand between them and conquest of the River Pride is Fang - and if they succeed, Mara will be the first to die as male lions kill the cubs of rivals. Sita has five cubs, and they are nearly blind and helpless. To hunt for food is dangerous, and she is always in danger of losing them. One harrowing scene depicts Sita being pursued by lions; she must distract them, but then loses her cubs in the darkness. And the shadows are ruled by hyenas. The chase scenes are thrilling, and remarkably photographed, capturing the sinew and muscle of the predator, the frantic escape of the prey, and the excitement is palpable as the gap is closed. Remarkable scenes where lions confront crocs and a cheetah actually attacks a lion (five times her size) are interspersed with shots that capture the impossible numbers of grazers seen on the Masai Mara. There are quiet moments, where a cub must choose to stay with the pride, or remain with her injured mother where they might die together. There are scenes of intensity, as the River Pride is attacked and a surprising defense is mounted. Time is taken out for some amusement - in the closing credits, aardvarks are tasked with `fight choreography', and hippos are credited with `underwater photography'.
As directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, the emphasis is on crafting a narrative, in serving that uniquely human attribute that desires a sort of meaning or direction to a story. Events in the natural world rarely follow any sort of moral or even an identifiable pattern, but such randomness would seem nihilistic to us. The point of organizing stories in works like African Cats or any episode of BBC Earth (Planet Earth, Life of Mammals, etc) is to provide a reference point, something humans can relate to, since we labor under the misapprehension that life has an underlying meaning. The point is not to stick to raw facts, as ten hours of footage of lions yawning does not make for engaging cinema. An intuitive link to our animal relatives is essential to understand our place in a system that is too complicated to understand fully. In this sense, the work of Fothergill approaches the real better than reality can in the eyes of the viewer. His partnership with David Attenborough has raised the bar of wildlife photography alongside the best that movies can offer, with sweeping vistas that do not lose sight of the intimate moments of nature.
Samuel L. Jackson brings energy to the narration that makes his presence less annoying than voice actors tend to be for nature films. I prefer the work of Iain Stewart or David Attenborough primarily because they write their own material and are speaking from a position of expertise. Actors have difficulty expressing biological or ecological terms with any authority, so they are saddled with dialogue that is either irritatingly vague or irrelevantly emotional. Jackson seems to have fun with it, and the tone is aimed at children anyway. Compared to the coke-fueled hyperkinetics of most animated films, African Cats is perfect. The unifying theme is the bond between mother and cub, and the extraordinary sacrifices required to bring that cub to adulthood. Layla will fight to the death for Mara, and her near-suicidal courage is all that will protect her from marauding male lions. Sita must bring her great skill in hunting prey and evading hazards to bring her brood to maturity. The result is moving, the story is at times thrilling and at others tragic, and the film is pure entertainment.