I am mother, hear me roar
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, February 18, 2011
While jaw-dropping footage of the animals of the African bush is a remarkable aspect of "The Last Lions," more impressive
still is the strong narrative thread that runs through the nature documentary. The National Geographic film manages to add the punch of a war movie and the emotion of a family drama to this chronicle of a lioness's life. The result is a movie that may be geared to a nature film fan base but will also appeal to admirers of good storytelling.
As the documentary opens, "invaders" from the North descend on the Okavango Delta of Botswana. These newcomers are lions displaced by human encroachment and in search of a new home, which leads to a land war between two groups of lions. When the wayfarers win, the movie's heroine - a lone lioness known as Ma di Tau (mother of lions) with three cubs - is left homeless. She ends up fording a river, something lions rarely do, in order to start a new life that includes dramatic battles against massive buffalo, confrontations with elephants and hyenas and strategic alliances to ensure the safety of her offspring.
The suspenseful action sequences and emotional drama is bolstered by a fantastic, evocative score as well as solid narration from Jeremy Irons (who, amusingly, voiced the villain Scar from "The Lion King"). The South African husband-and-wife team Dereck and Beverly Joubert, veterans of wildlife moviemaking, have a knack for capturing both the big picture life in a remote
corner of Africa as well as the tiny, telling details. The bloodied tip of a buffalo's horn elicits the same awe as an entire herd muddling through water.
The tale has all the trappings of a good Jack London novel, including fearsome villains, such as a scar-faced buffalo leading a pack of its one-ton brethren, as well as a one-eyed lioness, well-known for killing the cubs of her enemies. There is also
warmth in moments of mother-cub bonding, plus heartbreak when one of the little ones becomes gravely injured.
And considering part of the impetus for the movie was to elicit support for the dwindling lion population, which has plummeted to 20,000 from 450,000 in the past 50 years, the filmmakers don't shy away from the brutal nature of lions. Some of the violence is hard to watch, especially one scene in which Ma di Tau takes on a seemingly defenseless baby buffalo. Instead, she ends up battling with the animal's mother, setting up a confrontation between two mothers, both trying to do what's best for their babies. It's hard to decide who to root for in a scene that feels like a moral dilemma.
All this adds up to a universal tale, and one that stretches beyond the animal kingdom. It might even be called a triumph of the human spirit if the protagonist weren't quite so furry.
Contains disturbing scenes of animal kingdom violence.