Once Upon A Time, Disney wasn’t just known for Mickey Mouse and animated movies, it also used to make nature films, bringing the wonders of wildlife to children. Over time, this beloved project of Walt himself rather got lost in the shuffle, but now it’s back with a new imprint called Disneynature, which produced this look at Lions and Cheetahs on the African savannah.
To help them, Disney went to some of the best in the nature filmmaking business, who inevitably worked for the BBC Natural History Unit, including Alistair Fothergill, the former head of the unit who was also the brains behind The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. He co-directed African Cats alongside Keith Scholey, who also got his training at the Beeb.
The documentary itself follows a pride of lions, and more particularly an aging lioness and her cub, Mara. With the male lion at the pride’s head past his prime, there’s another cat across the river who, along with his four sons, is eyeing the lionesses and their territory. With Mara’s mother on her last legs, it may be difficult for the cub to survive until adulthood, unless she can become an integral part of the group, especially with a possible change of the pride’s head. Mixed in with this is the tale of a cheetah and her cubs, from their days as newborns before their eyes had opened, right up to adulthood when they head off on their own.
The focus of the film is definitely aimed towards a family audience, with a seeming hope that it can enthuse children towards the wonders of the natural world. With some truly beautiful imagery – much of which looks truly astonishing on Blu-ray – and an exciting story to tell, it should certainly be enjoyed by nature loving children. The fact it’s mainly aimed at the family means that they also tone down the nature red in tooth and claw that many nature docs revel in. While there is some fighting and hunting behaviour, there’s none of the lengthy and vicious-looking kills that mark many nature documentaries about big cats.
Many adults will love the film too, although some may have problems with the way it massively anthropomorphises the animals. This was undoubtedly done to make it more relatable for children, but if you’ve got a naturalist’s mind, the way it gives human motivations, ideas and emotions to the animals may bug you. There are also moments when it’s difficult not to feel you’re being sold a story with the footage used to fit that, rather than just seeing what really goes on in the African wild. However even if you do find yourself a little annoyed by the narration, you’re still likely to be transported by the imagery. Shots of the camera tracking alongside a quintet of fully-maned lions and images of the sun setting on the savannah are just magnificent and some of the best looking things I’ve seen on a Blu-ray for a long time. They’ve certainly made sure it looks amazing in HD – indeed Africa has rarely looked better.
There’s not a huge amount in the way of special features, just a couple of featurettes and a music video. Both featurettes feel slightly like Disney propaganda about how wonderful the company is in trying to save the world, although they do include some interesting info on the idea behind African Cats and the various projects Disney has focussed on wildlife and conservation.
Overall Verdict: A great documentary for families, which may treat the animals a bit too much like cat-shaped humans, but it ensures youngsters will get involved with the story while adults will bask in the beautiful imagery.
‘Disney & Nature’ Featurette
‘Save The Savannah’ Featurette
Jordin Sparks ‘The World I Knew’ Music Video
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
African Cats will be released on Disney Blu-ray™ & DVD On 3rd September 2012