Monday, May 8, 2011
Disney’s latest nature film is stunning family fare, with an overlay narrative that ties the drama together. Attributing human qualities and emotion to animal behavior can feel contrived, but the stunning images on the big screen are so astonishing, so filled with delight, artistic license for the creators of this visual feast is generously granted on a broad scale.
Speaking of feast, there is plenty of that out in the wild. African Cats is a story of survival for those majestic carnivores in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya’s massive Serengeti plains. Caution: young children may be disturbed by the hunt and kill. While the scenes are not gratuitous, they could be too much. The New York Times reviewer reports that a seven year old dragged his mother out of the theater as a pack of lions lunched on a fallen zebra.
That aside, a storyline weaves the extraordinary scenes together. In the Maasai Mara, the crocodile infested Talek River separates a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom. Both exist under the rule of a Lion King: Kali in the North and Fang in the South. They gather on either side of the river in a communal pride, mainly unaware of each other. A lion pride consists of several male and female lions, along with their playful cubs, each pride ruled by a dominant male. Herds of wildebeest, numbered in the millions, provide plenty of nourishment. The horned, hoofed, horse-like mammals swarm the plain until their annual migration further south. Their departure leaves the giant cats hungry.
As the waters retreat in the summertime, the lions will venture into the water of the river crossing the natural border, risking the jaws of submerged predators, the crocs. They wander into foreign territory on the other side. The Maasai Mara Reserve boasts an abundance of species, perhaps the largest in the world. There are elephants and buffalo, leopards and hyenas and jackals, foxes and hippos and giraffes, gazelles and zebras. Nearly five hundred species of birds flutter in and around the plains, vultures and storks and hornbills and ostriches. Eagles and falcons and cranes. And a jumping secretary bird who entertains the lion cubs.
Layla depends on Fang, who is named for a broken tooth, a casualty of battle, to protect her cubs. Mara, her youngest, needs the most care. Sita, a powerful cheetah, must protect her brood but in addition, must leave them from time to time to hunt for their foods. Meat-eaters all, their exploits in the Serengeti Plain operate way up the food chain. Mammals chasing mammals. Each with eyes and ears and protective strategies, the hunt and the chase provide the high drama. The cameras capture the intimacy and power of a mother’s protective, playful care. In cinematic detail, muscular bodies ripple in hot pursuit. Slow motion. The adrenaline rush. Mom’s hunt, too. It’s hit and miss out there. Chance and determination are both in play. The focus of the cheetah’s gaze just before the kill is nature’s laser beam. Sometimes the banquet comes home. Sometimes not.
Kali and Fang eventually come face to face. Sita gets caught in the confrontation. I won’t give away the outcome.
African Cats is mainly the story of the circle of life and in that sense is reminiscent of the Disney classic, Lion King. The technologies that capture these images and sequences for the big screen are the best ever. But it is more than technical. One reviewer calls it a story that illuminates the “power of mother love.”
And that makes it a Mother’s Day film. As I watched these scenes, something mysterious and awe-inspiring in nature shines a light on human experience. The Dad as protector. The Mom as caregiver, nurturer. She prepares her offspring for life in the wild. (It really is a jungle out there.) But mainly, you get a new perspective on the intuitive and powerful connection between parent and child – the family and the place of pride. When that is broken, everything is at risk.
So we have Kali and Fang. Layla and Sita. Mara and the brood of cubs. The pride.
And here we are in our own Serengeti Plain, surrounded by wonders; dangers, toils and snares. High risk. Great reward. And moments of deep satisfaction.
Makes me want to sit and watch a sunset. Real time.
Copyright Kenneth Kemp 2011