The first entry in the Disneynature series that's pitched at youngsters rather than a general audience, despite some intense footage.

James Plath's picture

Watching "Disneynature: African Cats," I realized within minutes (as most viewers would) that this film was totally different from three previous Disneynature releases--"Earth," "Oceans" and "The Crimson Wing: The Mystery of the Flamingo."

The first three are straight nature shows in the mode of the new "extreme" wildlife photography documentaries, where one-upmanship has surfaced as the main principal: get closer, and get shots that no one else has ever gotten.

But "African Cats," it quickly struck me, is aimed at a young audience. Like early Disney True-Life Adventures it treats animals as if they were humans, in this case telling a story of two mothers--a lioness and a cheetah. It's driven by simple narration based on simple sentences, read by Samuel L. Jackson in the dramatic (and sometimes breathlessly exaggerated) voice that adults use to tell children stories. What's more, the narrative and depiction of the African savannah seems deliberately structured to present youngsters with a live-action version of "The Lion King," as if it were one long (89-minute) bonus feature showing the kind of real-life episodes that the popular animated film used for inspiration. Call it a validation of the animated feature's accuracy--at least to some degree.

As in "The Lion King" we get talk of "pridelands" and two "kingdoms." The main focus is on a river pride of lionesses, their cubs, and the one male (Fang) whose job it is to protect them. "To Mara," the young cub whose mother, Layla, is a focal point, "he's the best dad ever." But, the narrator also tells us, "The northern kingdom is ruled by Fang's greatest enemy--Kali. And Kali is not alone. He has four sons, in their prime. Together, they form the most powerful force in the land, one set on conquest." It's pure "Lion King" that "He and his sons are driven to defeat Fang and take over the pride." Conquest is what's emphasized . . . not the simple fact that there are no lionesses in the "northern kingdom" across the river and that the biological drive to survive would push the solitary males to find mates.

Throughout this film, language is used which is geared toward a young audience, and which evokes the language and narrative structure of "The Lion King." A nature show for adults would matter-of-factly talk of the seasonal effect that forces herds of wildebeest to migrate during the dry season to look for food elsewhere, and then return. It happens annually, and it would be treated as a temporary thing. But this narrative tries to make the link to "The Lion King" ("The pridelands are drying out") after Scar took over and the herds left, not to return until Simba took his place as rightful heir to the throne. Shots too seem deliberately taken to evoke scenes from "The Lion King." A sequence involving the wildebeest herd on the move looks very close to one in the animated feature, and there are more than a few bright orange skies in the background with shots that could be mirror images to the animated frames.

Often, the natural conflicts of the animals are explained in human (especially young human) terms. When the evil spawn of Kali try to attack the other featured mother in this film--a cheetah named Sita who is "a single mother"--and her cubs and then are driven off by an elephant, the narrator intones, "In this land, even bullies get bullied." At one point we're told "the savannah is the greatest schoolyard, but some of the kids are a little different," as the cheetah pups try to engage a feral cat in pouncing games that again will seem reminiscent of "The Lion King."

So if you're an adult fan of nature documentaries, be warned that this one is strictly for the kiddies.

How successful is it, then, as a children's nature show?

That depends on how sensitive your child happens to be. I have a nine year old who doesn't like "The Lion King" because of the killing that's shown. This same child hates nature shows that depict predators taking down their prey and then chowing down. There are take-downs shown in "African Cats" as well, though Disney obviously tried, with point-of-view narration, to shift sympathy to the cats. When Sita zeroes in on a Thompson's gazelle we see the grab and take-down, but the kill is off-camera. "Success," the narrator says, as the screen goes momentarily blurry. "Sita's cubs will not go hungry today." But no matter how the narration tries to soft-pedal the violence of the natural world, there are moments when children will instinctively understand what's going on. When, for example, hyenas appear and Sita's cubs scatter as she tries to fight off the pack, "It's a mother's worst nightmare. Hyenas have taken two of her cubs. They are gone forever," and children will put two-and-two together.

It would be easy to complain about showing a zebra being taken down, or that poor gazelle, but Disney has always included footage like that . . . even in "The African Lion," a 1955 True-Life Adventure. And Disney has always tried to anthropomorphize the animals to make them more relatable. The upside is that you care more about the animals; the downside is that once you're emotionally invested, it can bother you more when some of these live-action "characters" meet with unhappy fates.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey and their camera crews spent two years at the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, waiting for right moments. Plenty are included in "African Cats," with the most stunning and memorable sequence coming when Fang gets in the face of a big crocodile who tries to drive the lionesses and cubs away from a hippo they're feasting upon.

I think that children who enjoy "The Lion King" and also appreciate animals might like "Disneynature: African Cats." But adults probably would appreciated some head's up on the packaging to warn them that it's pitched at youngsters.

"Disneynature: African Cats" is rated G.

Like most releases coming from Disney these days, "African Cats" looks marvelous in 1080p high definition. Colors are so vibrant they almost pulse with life--especially those bright-orange sky backgrounds. And the level of detail is superb. Every hair looks CGI created (and how's that for a reverse compliment?). If there were compression issues with this AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc, I didn't see them. Some scenes were a little duskier than others, but that, of course, is a result of a terrain that dramatically changes color with the sky. "African Cats" is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.

Since it's mostly voiceover and some background music we hear, there was really no need for a DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio, but compared to the Dolby Digital 5.1 (also an option in French and Spanish) it's a much richer soundtrack. I wouldn't say it's immersive, but there's nice separation, so that when an animal grunts or roars off to the side, the corresponding front speaker pulls it off nicely. Every little squeak that the baby cheetahs make is as full-toned as the more guttural growls of older animals. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

There's not a lot here. Other than sneak peeks for other videos, a Jordan Sparks music video ("The World I Knew"), and a "Save the Savannah" PSA, all that there is of interest is an under five minute glimpse at Disney's track record promoting nature at its theme parks and a bonus feature option that pops up when you go to play the feature. You have the choice to watch it with Filmmaker Annotations--the annotations being both rectangular tiles with printed trivia on them, and also picture-in-picture interviews with various Disney filmmakers involved in the project.

The Filmmaker Annotations offers some really nice content, but unfortunately the presentation leaves a little to be desired. Once you select Filmmaker Annotations you can't press pop-up menu and change your options. If you want to exit, you'll have to press the top/main menu and wait for the whole thing to load all over again. And why would you want to do this? Well, if you think that you can have it both ways and watch the film AND enjoy the filmmakers' commentaries, then discover it's just not possible, you'll be looking to exit. I did, because there are two problems with the design. The rectangular tiles are so big that when you get a print tile and a PIP commentary going at the same time they take up 35-40 percent of the viewing area. Also, the sound on the commentary completely wipes out the narrative from the film, so you'll have a narrator cut off in mid-sentence while a PIP feature kicks in. What's here is quite good, but to enjoy it you really have to watch the film first and then watch it all over again with the Filmmaker Annotations.

Bottom Line:
If "Disneynature: African Cats" had been a little more upfront about its target audience, it would be more consumer-friendly. As is, it's the first entry in the Disneynature series that's pitched at youngsters rather than a general audience, despite some intense footage. Does it succeed as a young person's nature show? I think it does. And it's something parents can watch with children to break up that steady diet of animation. In fact, it might be better if parents watched with their children to get them through some of the predator rough spots.


Film Value