Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio move over. Sita, cheetah mother, gets my vote for "action hero" when it comes to thrillers that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
"African Cats," Sita's star vehicle and this year's Earth Day release by DisneyNature, doesn't at first seem like an obvious nail-biter. Gorgeous shots of Kenya's extraordinary Masai Mara grasslands open the film before it homes in on the animals that steal the show: Sita and her mischievous cubs, and Fang, the patriarch of a large pride of lions and their playful offspring. But you know what's coming next: The breathtaking scenery is only a backdrop to the life-and-death struggles that play out between these cat "families" and the animals that prey upon them. It's the "Lion King" in the flesh.
The Mara is one of the few remaining places in Africa where lions, cheetahs and leopards live in large numbers and in close proximity. The River Pride, a dominant group of lions led by "Fang," roams the hills south of the Mara River. A second group of male lions—a powerful father and his four sons—rules the area to the north. The River Pride is threatened by these lions from the north who are awaiting the perfect opportunity to move in, depose Fang, and take over his pride. Meanwhile, Sita must defend her babies against the lions, as well as ravenous hyenas and even other cheetahs.
The young cheetah and lion cubs are gosh-darn cute, and the filmmakers make the most of their playful antics and mewling cries to set the stage for the inevitable clashes between protective mothers and their hungry adversaries. The films' directors insist on building suspense by creating a very human story line intent on driving home the point that a mother will do anything to protect her babies. But the story and its corny script get in the way of the pictures unfolding on the screen. The movie would have been wonderful to watch with music alone, sans narration.
That said, I loved the film's high definition cinematography and "you are there" shots. I've been on two safaris, including one in the Masai Mara. I saw first-hand lions eating their way through the steaming belly of a zebra they'd just killed, and watched a cheetah kill an eland then effortlessly haul it up into a tree for safe-keeping. The filmmakers show the animals exactly as I remember them in the wild, foregoing special effects, animation, and other cinematics in favor of spellbinding close-ups of animal eyes, rippling muscles, and jaws dripping with fresh blood.
DisneyNature hopes "African Cats" will do more than entertain. The company is partnering with the African Wildife Foundation in a campaign to "Save the Savanna" where these big cats live. Throughout Earth Week, April 22-28, a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to support AWF's program to protect the Amboseli Wildlife Corridor. The corridor is the expanse of land that stretches across the Savanna between three national parks in Kenya. Lions, elephants, cheetahs, zebras, and other wildlife traverse it when they migrate and look for food and water. AWF's work will help insure that the corridor stays open and wild enough to help these animals thrive despite the pressures put upon them from tourism and encroaching development.
NOTE: "African Cats" is sometimes graphically violent and may not be appropriate for children younger than 13. The scenes of predators chasing down and devouring their prey are totally realistic – which means they're brutal and bloody. At one point, the little girl sitting next to me in the theater just put her head down and covered her ears.
African Cats is DisneyNature's third Earth Day feature. Here's a review of last year's film, "Earth."