A pride of lions lives in perfect harmony on the African savanna. After their aging leader disappears, the lions struggle to survive, dodging hyenas and wildebeests. Mostly mothers and cubs, the vulnerable pride comes under the fierce reign of a new lion king who has chased off the old one. A warthog and meerkat make an appearance.
Hakuna matata. Watching African Cats made me feel 10 years old again, though not for the reasons one might assume. That would be 1994, when Disney's The Lion King debuted to universal praise, garnered two Oscars for its original soundtrack, and launched a multimillion-dollar franchise that includes a Broadway musical and those direct-to-video sequels. The bad news about African Cats is that it conspicuously parrots its 2D predecessor in narrative themes. The good news is that if you take your children to African Cats, they won't know or likely care.
Like DisneyNature's previous films, Earth (2009) and Oceans (2010), also released on Earth Day, African Cats—a sweeping family epic gleaned from two years of footage—captures rare moments of nature's unfolding drama, this time in the Masai Mara National Reserve of southern Kenya. African Cats strings these moments together in an emotional drama underscoring the bond between mother and child. It follows three feline families through the rainy season up through the annual wildebeest migration. Sita the cheetah is a single mother raising five cubs to face the savanna's many threats. Layla the lion is the lead hunter of the River Pride with a six-month-old cub, Mara. Kali and his four lion sons rule the kingdom north of the Talek River, and are waiting for it to recede to conquer the south kingdom and its lionesses, who follow the mangy Fang.
The three families face predators, injuries, and hunger, while narrator Samuel L. Jackson lays on the anthropomorphism just a bit thick, erasing the lines between animal and human behavior. For example, when Sita finds that two of her cubs have gone missing one night, Jackson tells us she faces "a mother's worst nightmare." When Kali takes over the River Pride, the lionesses growl and swipe at his sons; we are told that their emotional wounds from Fang's departure are too fresh to get cozy with their new lovers. Sita's cubs are harassed by four "bullies"—older male cheetahs—but stand their ground, making their mother "proud." And hyenas are depicted as "evil," not just another species trying to survive in the food chain of the African plain.
Co-director Keith Scholey believes "identifiable characters" were needed in African Cats to break out of the snoozy genre of nature documentary. "And cats' lives are Shakespearean" anyway, he toldThe Globe and Mail. "You have these males who want to rule and conquer; you have females who want to raise their cubs and protect them from rival males, but when things go wrong they have to sleep with the enemy." The goal, says co-director Alastair Fothergill, is that the audience "wouldn't think of them as being lions and cheetahs, [but] would think of them as being other people."