Friday, May 13, 2011

African Cats (2011, Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey)

Maybe I've watched too much Werner Herzog, but I feel nature documentaries have a responsibility to be equal parts humbling in their grandeur and revolting in the grotesque.  Say what you will about Darwin (African Cats says nothing) but life isn't simply a story of winners.  Disneynature's third consecutive Earth Day feature is a significant step back from 2009's Earth, a too-conveniently edited narrative version of the brilliant "Planet Earth" series and 2010's beautiful-if-too-anthropomorphic Oceans.

Though marketed as an Earth Day film, let's get one thing straight: African Cats is a tongue-bath of a Mother's Day picture that goes above and beyond in characterizing its cats as loyal, noble, nurturing mothers with the foresight to scheme long-term alliances for their future generation.  It's a film that betrays its internal logic of the cyclical by fabricating a concrete beginning, middle and end to the story.  What we are left with is a film that teaches us less about the circle of life than The Lion King, though it tries its damnest to be as emotional.

The film awkwardly cuts between two wildly divergent stories linked only by their mammalian family.  In the first, over-the-hill lioness, Layla raises her half-grown cub, Mara in a pride overseen by its patriarch, one-toothed Fang.  Samuel L. Jackson tells us Layla is graying, perhaps because she gets injured and dies.  After all, it's an easier life-lesson for the kiddies if she's had years to sow the fruits of hard labor.  Layla even knows her time is short, chumming with "sisters" so that Mara will be accepted into the pride after her death.  What ingenuity!  Samuel L. Jackson tells us Fang is brave and even the "best dad ever" because he scraps for his family and roars at crocodiles.  The same sentiment isn't echoed when he eventually turns tail and leaves the pride to a group of ruffians.
Don't get too attached to all these little guys.

Our other family features Sita, a single-mother cheetah raising her five, then three cheetah cubs.  Sita is noble, raising her children to learn to hunt gazelle.  Sita is compassionate, grieving when hyenas take two of her cubs.  The ominous score teaches us that the hyenas are not noble but dastardly when they hunt cheetahs for nourishment.  It hand-selects our dedication rather than allowing us to choose sides between Fang and his rival Kali.  There must be no mothers among the crocodiles, as they are only opportunistic in their selection of meats (not provisional like the lion mothers who hunt zebra).

But what bothered me more than the blatant anthropomorphic characterization was the film's irresponsible disingenuity in its mise en scène.  I felt like I was watching Eisensteinian montage to explain Savannah dangers throughout much of the picture; as if the film, rather than documenting, pleaded its case with false information.  I'm not naïve enough as to claim that documentaries come without authorship, but the editing splices together things we just don't see in establishing shot.  Early on, Sita takes her cubs on an "adventure" which amounts to walking from undisclosed point A to undisclosed point B.  The cubs look left.  An elephant looks right.  The cubs run one direction.  The elephant makes a sound.  Never once are the cubs and the elephant in the same frame.

We are told that hyenas dragged off two of Sita's cubs, but are given no evidence of this whatsoever.  Perhaps it is an easy explanation to add gravity to a later match-up between the older cheetahs and the hyenas.  Three adult male cheetahs approach Sita as she protects her cubs, and we are told that they can even be cannibalistic (this fact is quickly brushed aside as it doesn't paint our African Cats in too majestic a light).  But again, we see cubs cowering.  We see males stalking.  Then, all at once, we see the cubs in the foreground looking at the adults in the distance and we realize, for once, there is a real dread.  The documentary is so cartoonish in its montage up to this point that I began to question whether entire plot points were penned from miscellaneous footage.  I didn't just feel that conflict was embellished, I honestly questioned if any of it happened.  I found myself questioning if we were even watching the same cats for the film's duration.  If the primary focus of the film was to entertain with witty narration, I would much prefer The Adventures of Milo and Otis which is upfront about what it is doing.

African Cats is breathtakingly shot.  Time-elapse storms, slow-motion hunts, prowl pans and intimate close-ups not only connect the viewer with the geography, but draw its majestic creatures in ways only film can.  It's sad this wasn't enough for the filmmakers, as the film so concerned with making us feel something that it fails to teach us anything.  It is a film in which it isn't enough to witness some of the grandest creatures on earth, we need them in a nice little bow and inspirational Jordin Sparks song.  Our titular cats raise their young until a viable age in a way the film fails to accept: like every other creature, "noble" or "vile", on the planet.  It is a film of sanitized life lessons and unfair white-hat/black-hat conflict that cheapens the complexity of nature to mere soap opera.  Though for what it's worth, it is a gorgeous, epically-shot soap opera. -- **/four stars

1 comment:

  1. I feel the same way about a lot of what DIsney has to offer; manipulative drivel with quick edits. There should have been a song about how noble cats are, how elegantly they raise their cubs. Something by Rogers and Mc Hammer.