Anthropomorphizing its animal stars to a borderline-dubious degree, Disneynature’s nonfiction African Cats situates itself in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, where two four-legged mothers valiantly struggle to provide for and protect their young. On the northern side of the river that divides this gorgeous but pitiless land lives aging lioness Layla, whose physical infirmities threaten to prevent her from continuing to care for her sole daughter, Mara, a danger compounded by the fact that her pride’s leader, broken-toothed Fang, has a tenuous grasp on power due to rival lion Kali who, along with his three strapping sons, is plotting to conquer the region. Meanwhile, to the south, sleek cheetah Sita faces equally formidable challenges as a single mother who must care for five newborn cubs—without a pack to provide security. It’s a bifurcated tale of hope, suffering, and endurance that directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill (the latter of whom helmed the BBC’s Planet Earth as well as Disney’s truncated version, Earth) dramatize in distinctly human terms, clearly demarcating heroes and villains in a manner designed to make the material go down smoothly for its young target audience. Unfortunately, those characterizations are fundamentally at odds with the documentary’s underlying portrait of the wild as a survival-of-the-fittest amoral arena.
As with the recent The Last Lions, which also sculpted nonfiction snapshots into a streamlined narrative, the film is a cornucopia of gorgeous imagery, here much of it in rhapsodic slow motion that captures the ferocious majesty of its beasts on the prowl, in cozy repose, and on the defensive against predators. Tasked with leaving her still-blind babies alone in order to hunt, Sita is portrayed in stunning single takes that slowly close in on her lithe, muscular frame as she speeds across the plains in pursuit of prey. Similarly, no matter their self-conscious stabs at epic import, Scholey and Fothergill’s panoramas of the African landscape drenched in sunset ember-orange and shimmering heat waves ably contribute to a larger sense of imposing natural splendor. That visual beauty helps compensate for a script that wastes no opportunity for heartstring tugging, often in the form of adorable tykes playing with each other and cuddling with their elders in close-up. If those moments are coldly calculated gestures intended to set up the more sorrowful events to come, they also convey—in intimate visions of the felines traveling, feeding, and fighting together—the vital bond shared between these mothers and children.
African Cats’ guiding desire to position its protagonists as no different than humans frequently undercuts its insights into the unique dynamics of the animal kingdom. Scholey and Fothergill’s editorial structure is often so conveniently neat and tidy that it often raises doubts about the veracity of the footage’s chronology, and generates a nagging impression—heightened by narrator Samuel L. Jackson’s attempts to build suspense and excitement via over-the-top line readings—that onscreen events have been massaged in post-production for supreme melodramatic effect. As befitting a Mouse House production, blood is never seen and warm uplift is the ultimate destination, replete with cornball “Where are they now?” postscripts. Yet if it maintains a superficially manipulative façade, the film remains committed to addressing the harsh realities of existence on the plains, be it through the depiction of a child’s painful choice between pride and parent, the desperate yelping of a mother separated from her brood, or the resignation of an old cat to its lonely, final fate.