‘African Cats’: Tale of two moms (with tails)

Disneynature’s “African Cats” contrasts the struggles and sacrifices of two mothers: the aging lioness Layla and the prime of life cheetah Sita. Gorgeously shot in Kenya, the film suffers slightly from heavy-handed scripting and some editing problems, but over all it is inspirational, safe but thoughtful family entertainment for Earth Day weekend and, even Mother’s Day.

This is, after all, a tale of two mom cats with different lifestyles. Sita is the single mom who has to do it all for her five cubs and not all of them will survive. Layla has had many cubs in her lifetime, but she’s nearing the end of hers and now she has only Mara. We don’t know what happened to her other cubs.

What we do know is that the lions are social animals, living in a group called a pride with one mature male, Fang. One look at Fang and his dangling tooth and we know things are not going to stay the same. Kali, another male who is roving with other related males–supposedly his sons–is moving in on Fang’s territory. That’s the tragic routine of lions. The old and injured males are periodically replaced and the new head male kills all the young cubs belonging to his predecessor. Remember that one when someone declares that men should be more like lions, sharing their seed with many women.

Sita doesn’t have the safety of a pride, and caring for five cubs isn’t easy.  Every time she hunts, she leaves the cubs alone and a cheetah can only hope to outrun other predators. Those thin, long legs aren’t made for fighting and could be easily broken by a lion or even a hyena. When tragedy does strike, we’re spared the gore. It’s suggested that when two cubs don’t make it through the night that the hyenas got them, but we never see the actual attack.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey over explain some things and don’t explain others. They might emphasize the animals feelings and intentions too much, depending upon whether you feel animals have emotions.  Moreover, they seem entranced by the technology that allows us to be so close to the animals that you could count the hairs if you wanted to. Sometimes, we don’t want to. When Layla is leading a hunt, we hear in the narration by Samuel L. Jackson that she has a strategy learned from experience, but we don’t get to see the strategic layout.

Fothergill previously directed the 2006 TV documentary series  “Planet Earth” and the 2007 “Earth.”  This is Scholey’s first directing credit although he has produced several documentaries including three episodes of the 2000 TV series “Nature.”

For the kids, I don’t think they will care about all these minor quibbles and if you allow yourself, you’ll be caught up in the drama, tragedy and joy of daily life in the wild of these two mothers. The story will make you want to save baby cheetahs and old lions. The cinematography will make you want to jump on to a plane and head over to Africa to see the great migration or  view the frolicking cubs and other babies. But wait around long enough for the humorous credits.

In that respect, the film serves its purpose: Inspiring us to care what happens to the wild animals in Africa. If only we could care more about the wildlife here, but that’s another movie. Disney will donate some of the proceeds from this weekend to a fund for preserving the Kenyan savanna through the African Wildlife Foundation. The breakdown is 20 cents per ticket (22-28 April) with a minimum of $100,000 pledged. In addition, 20 percent of the net proceeds from the sale of the theme song, Jordin Sparks’ “The World I Knew,” (singles sold from 12 April 2011 to 12 April 2012) with a maximum of $50,000.

There’s a teaching guide and more on the official webpage for “African Cats.”

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