As devoted audiences of the long-running TV series Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Nature know, tech teams can fiddle with CGI till the cows come home, but there’s still no movie sight quite as awesome as real animals in the wild, being wild and real. Following in the great wildlife-movie tradition of humans watching, waiting, and getting lucky with their cameras, the documentary African Cats makes good on its title: The setting is the wild savanna of East Africa. The stars of the show are a lion cub and a cheetah mother. And these cats’ separate sagas combine to make a drama that the new Disney-branded division Disneynature can’t resist calling a ”real-life Lion King,” thereby consolidating Disney’s worldwide entertainment monopoly on lion-related properties.
As befits the Disney brand, these animal protagonists are given names and anthropomorphic attributes: The lion cub is Mara, the only daughter of a ”devoted” lioness whose mate faces a showdown with a strong rival and his own sons; Sita is the cheetah mother of newborns. (In a nice tabloid touch, she’s identified as a single mother, suggesting she ought to have access to good childcare.) Music swells, sighs, and scampers appropriately as the drama requires; Samuel L. Jackson provides crisp, warm narration, even when he’s made to say goo-goo storytelling stuff like ”To Mara, [her father] is the best dad in the world.” (No, ”Mara” doesn’t ”think” that.)
But the movie’s childification can be (mostly) forgiven, because the matter-of-fact, down-to-the-bone, everyday life-and-death circumstances of these African cats are so stirring, so big. And at the same time, their challenges have been shaped into an effectively intimate story of survival, animal parenting instinct, and animal coming-of-age. For this, props go to British directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. The former is the producing pro behind the BBC’s award-winning Planet Earth; the latter is the creator of the BBC’s Big Cat Diary. Not coincidentally, African Cats opens on Earth Day. Meeting these magnificent fellow creatures might be a fine way to celebrate. B+