African Cats (2011) Review

By and large, animals are only interesting when humans can relate to their behavior. For instance, watching a mother fight off a predator to protect her progeny will always swell the hearts of viewers because everyone can understand the gravity of the situation on a primal level. The filmmakers behind African Cats have gone even further in humanizing the animal kingdom, which will delight audiences of all ages who will find themselves sympathizing with the “characters” in the film on many occasions. It’s only when the animals behave in purely animal ways does the spell break.

Set on the African savanna, African Cats mainly revolves around the lions that make up the River Pride as well as a lone cheetah named Sita. The River Pride is protected by its single male named Fang who wears his broken tooth dangling from his mouth as a mark of bravery. Mara is a 6-month-old lion cub to the aging huntress Layla. Unfortunately, north of the river is a fearsome lion named Kali, who wants to take over the River Pride with his three sons. Meanwhile, Sita, the cheetah, struggles to raise her five cubs alone while predators stalk the plains around her. Samuel L. Jackson helps convey the story through narrated commentary.

Credit definitely goes to the filmmakers for being able to craft stories – such as they are – out of these animals’ lives. There’s a definite feel for who the protagonists and antagonists are. When Kali and his sons are introduced, special care is taken to highlight Kali’s dark mane and his scenes are filled with foreboding music. Immediately, viewers are guided to fear for Mara’s safety and to view Fang as a protector. In reality, the filmmakers could have inserted any narrative they wanted, but the story they chose to tell fits the action well enough.

Unfortunately, there are moments when the storytelling becomes contrived. In one scene, Sita’s cubs find themselves surrounded by threatening, older male cheetahs. The situation seems dire and it’s unclear if and how the cubs will survive. Suddenly, a huge elephant appears out of nowhere to drive off the menacing cheetahs. It’s obvious, however, that the elephant wasn’t organic to the scene and looks suspiciously like unrelated footage cut together to provide a satisfying resolution to the cheetah confrontation. Later, extra suspense is added for lions crossing a crocodile infested river. Close-up shots of crocodiles submerging give the illusion that crocodiles are actually near the lions, so when one lion struggles to get out of the river, audiences will think a crocodile has him even though a crocodile is never shown. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between and the filmmakers mainly let the animals’ lives play out naturally.

The animals will not fail to entertain. They are beautiful and ugly, playful and fearsome, lovable and despicable. Watching them lounge about or play with each other is as cute as watching any pet do what it does. And listening to a mother repeatedly call for her cub who won’t answer is as saddening as any human interest story covered on the 11 o’clock news. Samuel L. Jackson does a fine job in his color commentary, brightening and darkening his inflections when necessary, but his voice and speech pattern are so distinct that audiences might actually be taken out of the film at times. It’s a shame that more silence wasn’t offered, because the animals are gorgeously shot and it would have been nice to just be one with the animals without any human intrusion.

Overall, the choice to give the animals names and characters benefits the film. Things get confusing, however, when animals behave in ways that are unacceptable for humans. For instance, the lions hunt and eventually kill prey. Some younger viewers may not understand why they should care about the named lion, but not for the unnamed gazelle that’s being disemboweled. Later, Mara’s fate with the River Pride may also leave a bad taste in many audience’s mouths, but the film presents the situation as something positive in the animal world, dispelling any kind of human emotions viewers may have ascribed to the creatures until that point. Still, even with these niggling moments of consternation, African Cats is better off with the light anthropomorphic elements than without.

Animal lovers and parents who want to broaden their children’s minds will definitely want to check out African Cats.