Cheetah mother Sita stalks an antelope in the tall grasses of the Kenyan savannah. She chases her quarry, closing the gap between them with bounding strides. Sita leaps, claws out, and lands upon the antelope’s hindquarters.
The director returns to Sita later, face smeared with blood, feeding her hungry cubs. The antelope, curiously, is nowhere to be found.
African Cats is an entertaining, if bloodless, look at the lives of Sita and aging lioness mother Layla as they try to raise cubs in the harsh African wilderness.
The film crafts a convincing and compelling narrative for each family: Sita must leave her cubs to the mercy of patrolling hyenas to hunt food and feed her family. Every time she must fend off a predator or hunt, her cubs scatter, meaning she has to race to find them before another hungry predator does.
Layla is the matriarch of the pride, but her aging body is giving out while the pride faces a hostile takeover from a northern male lion. For those who don’t watch National Geographic, a lion takeover means that all the cubs are killed by the new male leader. Things don’t look good for her beloved cub Mara.
It’s rough being a single mother on the Serengeti.
The cats are great, but the star of the movie is the cinematography. Co-directed by Alastair Fothergill, who was one of the filmmakers behind the Planet Earth series, the film boasts sweeping landscape shots and intimate scenes of animal interaction.
The editors, too, seem to enjoy piecing the story together. Stay for the credits to see each animal given a cinematic credit: Crocodiles, for example, are the catering managers.
Narrator Samuel L. Jackson (The Sunset Limited) proves an enthusiastic storyteller, building suspense and explaining the intricacies of Sita and Layla’s lives. He bridges the audience’s knowledge and age gaps admirably. He takes the topic seriously but is animated enough to keep children engaged.
This Disneynature documentary would be a total success were it not set in a Disney-like world. It’s not a bad idea to get children interested in nature and conservation through documentaries. But the company hamstrings itself by trying to fit the behavior of wild carnivorous animals into a kid-friendly G rating.
Instead of hunting, the cheetahs and lions seem to be playing a demented version of tag with their prey. Directors Fothergill and Keith Scholey cut before a drop of blood is spilled, which slashes the tension and negates the cats’ life-or-death struggles.
This is a fine starter flick for younger audiences, and the visuals are breathtaking at any age. However, as a viewer who recalls the flesh-rending gore of the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom documentaries, African Cats was a little Mild Kingdom for my taste.