Mother's work is never done
By Sandie Angulo Chen
Friday, April 22, 2011
It’s Earth Day, which means not only teaching children about recycling, but also, of course, settling in for a Disney-produced nature documentary.
After 2009’s “Earth” and last year’s “Oceans,” Disney has narrowed its focus with “African Cats,” directed by veteran wildlife filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. Despite its timing and subject matter, the highly anthropomorphized storytelling of “African Cats” makes this year’s Earth Day feature feel more like a Mother’s Day pick. It’s the wildlife doc equivalent of a Hallmark movie: “Not Without My Cubs — the Savanna Chronicles.”
With carefully scripted narration by Samuel L. Jackson, “Cats” focuses on two feline mothers prowling Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve: Sita, a cheetah “single mother” struggling to support five newborn cubs in the “North Kingdom,” and Layla, an older lioness who must overcome her injuries to raise her 6-month-old cub named Mara in the “South Kingdom.” A river patrolled by snapping, ravenous crocodiles separates the two realms. For the cubs of either species to reach maturity, both mothers must fend off invading predators while dealing with near-constant hunger.
Besides bestowing Sita and Layla with the very human quality of maternal worry, the filmmakers heighten the tension further by giving other animals additional human traits. For example, the filmmakers depict Kali, a rival to Layla’s mate, Fang, as a cunning empire-builder intent on deposing the reigning king of the jungle. Young viewers, even if they remember nothing of the zoology, are likely to remember which cats were the bad guys (Kali and his four treacherous sons) and which were the good guys (the moms and their mewling cubs). In addition to the cats, hyenas in the North Kingdom are filmed as villainous, creepy and cub-hungry as the animated hyenas in Disney’s “The Lion King.”
All this tension comes at a seat-squirming cost. Despite the doc’s G rating, there are quite a few scenes that are likely to scare the younger kids (and some squeamish adults). The most upsetting scenes aren’t even the hunts and confrontations — which are plentiful — but the moments of quiet despair. One morning, Sita wakes to the possibility that all of her cubs have been abducted by hyenas. In another heartbreaking scene, Layla, grievously injured during a zebra hunt, stays behind when the pride — including her little Mara — moves on.
Cinematographers Owen Newman and Sophie Darlington should be applauded for their beautiful shots of the savanna and for their action shots of the animals in movement. Since the film is culled from 2 years’ worth of footage, the result is obviously a greatest hits of their shoot. The hunting sequences, particularly the ones featuring Sita running and leaping with mesmerizing grace and speed, are breathtakingly good. The filmmakers have even managed to make the more mundane shots depicting “grumpy” buffalo, wandering ostriches, hyper-aware zebra and napping cubs — memorable and “awwwww” inducing.
Don’t expect “African Cats” to be particularly educational or to possess an agenda. In contrast, National Geographic’s recently released “The Last Lions” takes a more naturalistic look at lion behavior while exposing the threat from bushmeat hunters and poachers. “African Cats” prefers less preaching and more heartstring-tugging. It works, of course, especially if you’re trying to raise your own cubs to adulthood.
With that in mind, mothers in the audience should keep some tissues on hand. The stories of both feline mothers end on a bittersweet note. Because cheetahs, unlike lions, are solitary creatures, Sita must bid goodbye to her surviving babies after teaching them how to live on their own. Layla’s cub Mara doesn’t even get that much from her mother.
Ultimately, this is a universal story about how these wild mothers, like their human counterparts, sacrifice again and again — all to make sure their children are happy, healthy and well fed.
Contains several animal deaths that may disturb younger viewers.