Wildlife photographers and documentarians Beverly and Dereck Joubert created the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic to educate people about the declining populations of large felines in the wild and, hopefully, to save them from extinction. "The Last Lions" is part of that effort. The film follows the daily life and struggles of a lioness and her cubs in Botswana's Okavango Delta. Fifty years ago, there were about 450,000 lions in Africa. Now there are an estimated 20,000. It is the filmmakers' hope that giving people an intimate view of these animals, in a narrative form, will inspire the audience to want to protect them.
The filmmakers call the lioness Ma di Tau (Mother of Lions), and actor Jeremy Irons narrates her story. Ma di Tau has a mate and three cubs but is forced to flee her home territory across a perilous river, when another pride of lions in search of new territory invade hers. She and her cubs take refuge on Duba Island, in the middle of a swampy river. When a herd of buffalo take up residence, it's not clear whether they will be dinner or a new menace. And a lioness with whom Ma di Tau did battle still looms threateningly on the other side of the river with her following of females, seemingly not content to let Ma di Tau and her cubs alone.
What is interesting about this film is also what is likely to be controversial. Ma di Tau's fight for survival for herself and her cubs is turned into high drama, which it is, but is also imbued with emotions and particular motivations via the narration. I'm not entirely against this. Emotions are not unique to humans. Countless species experienced them before humans existed. I don't think the film overplays the emotions, but I was sometimes doubtful of the motives it attributed to Ma di Tau. Even without the narration, this is an incredible story, however. It has drama, action, and will evince a gamut of emotions in the human audience no matter how the cats felt.
I was surprised how far the animals would go to defend their brethren and to destroy their enemies. I've always thought of lions as powerful predators, but "The Last Lions" makes it clear that hunting is difficult and usually unsuccessful. The challenge of feeding and protecting cubs in this environment, on her own, is heart-rending, and, though she is usually stoic about it, it gets to Ma di Tau sometimes. The shifting allegiances between the animals are fascinating, but the film focuses on narrative rather than facts, leaving me to wonder whether the animals were acting out of instinct, logic, or emotions. It's an incredible, intimate look at life in the wild, in any case.
The DVD (Virgil Films 2012): Bonus features include "Behind the Scenes" (27 min), which is footage of the Jouberts filming without any narration or explanation, some deleted scenes, a publicity spot for the Big Cat Initiative called "Cause an Uproar(dot)org" (30 sec), 2 theatrical trailers (2 min each), and an "Interview with Dereck & Beverly Joubert" (12 min) in which the couple answer some questions about the film and about their many books. Subtitles for the film are available in English.