Movie Review - The Last Lions / African Cats

In February 2011, a documentary about lions in Africa, produced by National Geographic, was released in theaters. Two months later, on Earth Day, another documentary about lions in Africa, as well as cheetahs, produced by Disney, was also released. The first was The Last Lions. The second was African Cats. The first had a purpose. It was focused, better written and had an overall message. The second simply followed the animals, commenting on motherhood and the territorial nature of large male felines.
 
The Last Lions is narrated by Jeremy Irons. It's set in Botswana in southern Africa. It centers on a mother lion named Ma di Tau who becomes displaced from her pride and who loses her mate. Marauding lions from the north threaten and ultimately push her and her cubs off the land and across the river into Duba. Once in Duba, Ma di Tau has to deal with a herd of buffalo led by a bull named Scarface. Scarface shows Ma di Tau that lions are not always the king of beasts. The maraduing lions continue to expand and soon come to Duba. One in particular named Silver Eye becomes the chief antagonist to Ma di Tau.
 
African Cats is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. It's set in Kenya in the eastern part of the continent. It centers on a mother cheetah named Sita raising five small cubs as well as a mother lion named Layla and her daughter named Mara. Sita's main job is to find food for her cubs and to prevent them from becoming food to other animals like hyenas. Layla is a mother that can't take care of her daughter due to an injury by a zebra. Layla becomes further injured and eventually struggles with having to give up motherhood, while Sita struggles desperately to hold onto it.
 
What both movies show is that these animals do form emotionally bonds and love those within their families, and for their families the animals will risk their lives or make harsh choices or sacrifices. The difference is that African Cats tries to make no point beyond that. It's still powerful and affecting, but doesn't make any broader connections. It's all self-contained. It has great photography, including some amazing tracking shots of cheetahs running. We see the cheetah running clearly in focus while everything around it is blurry. African Cats is also trying to be more comedic, making more funny asides and observations. The end credits are one such example.
 
The Last Lions is less comedic and instead tries to be more dramatic and more environmentally aware. The end credits are one such example. The end credits state the felines depicted are part of an endangered species that is down to 20,000 lions. The end credits also encourage viewers to go to a website if they want to support the cause to preserve these animals. Throughout the film, reasons as to why the big cats are endangered are intimated. Plus, instead of bouncing back-and-forth between several prides and even cheetahs, The Last Lions stays with one lioness and allows the audience to thoroughly understand and empathize with her.
 
I understand that both movies are documentaries about animals, which are distinctively out of the director's control more than documentaries about humans. Documentaries about humans can be directed during filming. The director can ask the humans questions or tell them that they need specific b-roll shots. The director can't do that with a lion. The director can only watch and hope to get good stuff. The director can follow a lion for a year and not get anything beyond the typical shots of a lion hunting or mating. All of which can be used to craft a compelling story. The makers of The Last Lions lucked out in that they stumbled upon a lioness with a very interesting life. The lions in African Cats might have been similarly interesting, but the character study-like depth in The Last Lions is more engrossing.
 
The Last Lions
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for some violent images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 28 mins.
 
African Cats
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated G for All Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.

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