Blu-Ray Review: African Cats

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Desperate to mirror a true-life documentary with a Lion King style narrative, African Cats suffers from an identity crisis that weakens the film as a whole. Directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill have crafted a visually stunning spectacle that ranks amongst the best-looking documentaries I’ve ever seen. However, the entire thing is hampered by their attempts to shoehorn in a story that never feels as if it wasn’t created in the editing bay.

Right off the bat, as Samuel L. Jackson’s voiceover introduced us to “the cast” of the film, I realized I wasn’t on the same page as the filmmakers. The film primarily follows three families of wildlife and the ways their worlds intersect. Throughout the course of the film, we follow the rivalry between a lion leader appropriately named Fang and his rival they have named Kali, a cheetah the film calls Sita along with her five cubs, and a lioness named Layla and her cub, Mara. These stories could have been fascinating if left for the audience to observe and formulate their own opinions, but instead, a story is spelled out for us, and as Jackson was explaining what these animals were thinking and feeling, I found myself trying to seperate the manufactured story from the reality of what I was seeing. By assigning names and personalities, it negated the reality of the two years they were filmed in the African savannah.

Now, I get that this is supposed to be a kid’s film, and I suppose assigning names to all the animals could help children to identify with what they were seeing. However, Jackson’s constant explanations as to the thoughts and feelings of these amazing creatures just rang false. Not helping matters is Jackson’s lackluster reading of the narration. I usually love Jackson’s work, but here, he sounds completely bored with the material. Not that I blame him.

Having said all that, African Cats is a visual triumph. This is the sort of film Blu-Ray was made for. The subtle nuances of the animals themselves as well as the world they live in leap off the screen. The picture captures every strand of hair, blade of grass, etc. with a vibrant clarity rarely seen. Particularly fascinating is the footage of the animals in motion. There are moments slowed just enough for the audience to marvel at the breathtaking power and grace of these animals. I am completely stunned at some of the footage they were able to capture, with moments ranging from a standoff between a lion and a crocodile or a cheetah willing to sacrifice her life to create a diversion for her kids to escape a lion.

It is moments such as those that made me so disappointed they were in service of a story so phony. I’m sure the basic constructs of the stories are legit, but what bothered me the most were the individual moments and contexts that were assigned rather than earned. As for the Blu-Ray itself, it comes in a 2-Disc Combo pack featuring both a Blu-Ray, and a DVD. The Blu-Ray contains all the same extras as the DVD, plus a few more.

For the most part, the extras are pretty sparse on this set. The best feature is a way of watching the film called “Filmmaker Annotations.” With this feature, you can watch the film with a picture-in-picture track featuring the filmmakers and various experts. They provide running commentary while also featuring behind-the-scenes tidbits and information that enhance what is happening in the film itself. It’s a great way of gaining some more insight into this world.

The only other features are a commercial for Disney and their conservation efforts, a brief fund-raising segment called “Save the Savanna,” and a music video from Jordin Sparks. For such a technically superior film, I would have expected more features isolated from the picture-in-picture feature. However, that’s such a great way of viewing the film, I don’t know that any other extras are really needed.

Despite any problems I had with the narrative, I can’t help but recommend this film based on the merits of it’s stunning visuals. These really are fascinating creatures and no matter what sort of creative editing may have been employed, it’s still a treat to spend time in this world we know so little about.