Disneynature’s African Cats could have easily turned into a fluff piece. With a G rating and a target demographic at least encompassing young children, directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill undoubtedly faced some pressure to tone down the violence and present an easily-digestible story. Animalistic maulings and vicious territorial battles aren’t typically synonymous with heart-warming family films, but life on the African range isn’t always pretty or virtuous. The food chain doesn’t cater to censors or squeamish audience members, nor does it offer free passes to its main characters. Ultimately, African Cats chooses honesty over idealism, and in doing so, presents a worthwhile and engaging portrait of life in the wild. Some of its characters die and others suffer great traumas, but precisely because they do, the uplifting journeys of those who persevere echo that much louder. Life without consequences doesn’t really have meaning.
Layla is a seasoned hunter. Nursing numerous injuries, the lioness keeps on fighting for the benfit of her six month old cub. The pair live in a large pride of ten to fifteen lions protected by a lone adult male. Named because of a deformed tooth he wields as a battle scar, Fang rules over the entirety of the land south of a river bisecting the savanna. Unfortunately, the other side of the river is ruled by the equally vicious Kali, a warrior with an epic mane and four sons hellbent on claiming Fang’s territory. The crocodile-invested water is too high to cross now, but soon, it’ll recede and set up a territorial battle that’ll alter everyone’s lives.
A hop, skip and a ford over the river, Sita lies in the underbrush waiting to strike. Kali and two of his sons are patrolling the area, and the mother cheetah is terrified they’ll find her five helpless newborns. She darts out of her hiding spot and breaks into stride. Both she and the lions know her speed is too much, but she desperately hopes they’ll follow, away from the little ones lying motionless a few dozen yards away. The plan works, but with no adult companions, it’s a risky maneuver she’ll need to repeat.
African Cats is very distinctly two stories operating within one film. From time-to-time, both families cross paths due to proximity, but the trials and tribulations of a cheetah and a lion are fundamentally different. Being a cheetah means making your own way. Being a lion means pulling your own weight. Sita must fight for and earn every single meal, but she also operates on her own schedule. Layla’s ailing body is at the mercy of the pride. When Fang decides to migrate to better hunting grounds, she must find the strength to follow or risk being cast out.
While the different lifestyles of the particular African cats are interesting and perhaps worth exploring, this decision to show both ultimately hampers the film, making it feel uneven. The truth is lions are just a lot more interesting than cheetahs. Traveling in prides and constantly facing threats of a takeover from Kali, there’s an entire group dynamic in play that’s foreign to Sita and her cubs. As a result, the scenes with Fang and Layla are a lot deeper, more interesting and ultimately better. That doesn’t mean the cheetah half isn’t worth watching, it’s just not as riveting.
Even with its disjointed narrative, African Cats is still edge of your seat excitement. It’s the type of movie everyone will at least blandly enjoy. It may not be as realistic or gory as a National Geographic Special, but it doesn’t need to be graphic to work. I’m glad I don’t live in the savanna, but I’m more than happy to visit for an hour and a half.