On Earth Day in 2010, after seeing the trailer for Disneynature: African Cats for the first time, I tweeted out something to the effect that followers should be marking their calendars as the return of True-Life Adventures would begin on 22 April 2011. Today, having viewed the movie in theaters and now in my home, I stand by that unsubstantiated assertion that I felt down in my gut.It isn’t that the creatures featured have been given names to make them more relatable, you find the true depth to the film in its natural narrative of life. The joys of children, the heartache of loss, the thrills of success, and the agony of defeat at the hands of a rival are all present within African Cats, and they are captured without the meddling hands of man. This can cause many stomach churning dilemmas, such as when a cub is lost and the immediate thought is to swoop in and keep a toddling cheetah cub to its safe when hyenas are on the prowl or when one of our heroines is continually injured and seeks a quiet place in the field to move on peacefully when all you want is for someone to give the graceful creature the medical attention she so desperately needs. In a reserve, the rules is no interference, if simply for the fact that once you begin intruding how do you decide where to stop, what is the line you won’t cross.
The entire feature was shot in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, which borders the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. One of the best preserved savanna systems in the world, Masai Mara provided stunning backdrops and gorgeous vistas which are dropped in throughout the movie. Even with an abundance of animal life and fantastic scenery, it took the filmmakers two years and hundreds of hours of filming to craft the story of African Cats.
A little humor here, there were two scenes in the movie that, whether intentional or not, reminded me of counterparts in Walt Disney World. First, the ever-present Thomson’s Gazelles immediately made me shout out, “Tommies!” Secondly, a scene where the lions have hunted a zebra and are standing around the carcass was eerily reminiscent of the Jungle Cruise scene where the pack of lions take care to watch over the sleeping zebra.The bonus features of African Cats are, in a word, lackluster and, if given a second and third word, too brief. One focuses on the Save the Savanna initiative tied to the film’s theatrical and home theater releases. A second gives an introduction to the ties between Disney and the wild corners of the world. Lastly, there is the requisite music video, Jordan Sparks’ “The World I Knew” in this instance.
The true hidden gem of the film’s extras, however, comes in the form of the commentary viewing option. This presentation included pop-up informational tidbits, picture-in-picture interviews with the filmmakers, and breakaway featurettes which could be viewed or passed on by the viewer. These breakout videos include a wealth of information on the Masai Mara, slow motion filmmaking, aerial filming, cinematographers, elephants, flimmakers’ camp, vehicles, rain, filming with Cineflex camera, field assistants and tracking the animals, life in the field, and the musical score.
African Cats originally came with the subtitle, Kingdom of Courage, a title befitting the experience of the filmmakers capturing these tales on film and the cats struggling to raise their precious families. The ability to see and explore these wild arenas, where animal families interact in ways that are similar and strikingly different to our own family groups, is remarkable. African Cats will stun you with its beauty and stories that hit remarkably close to home. The filmmakers have done their job well, you will feel for the cheetahs and lions and, if we’re very lucky, this new True-Life Adventure is only just the tip of the iceberg that will renew our, and our children’s, interest in preserve the wild places left in the world.