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african-cats-064“African Cats,” the new slice-of-life-and-death documentary from Disney Nature, is a beautifully shot look at feline life on the African savannah in Kenya. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, it is one movie that most certainly cannot run the disclaimer, “No animals were hurt during the making of this film.”

In an effort to create a dramatic structure directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey divide a section of the Masai Mara nature reserve in Kenya into two halves separated by a river. On one side is Kali, a young powerful lion and his sons, the other territory is ruled by Fang and his lionesses. Also present is Seta, a mother cheetah who is raising five cubs. Narrator Jackson narrates the story of how their lives intertwine. It’s serious circle of life which lead to me wonder how there are any animals left in Africa—all they seem to do is eat one another.

Advances in camera technology allow Fothergill and Scholey to get intimate shots that likely weren’t possible years ago. The audience is treated to up-close-and-personal looks at the mother cheetah raising her newborns, a showdown between a fierce lion and a crocodile and incredible footage of life in the wild. The movie works best when it backs off and allows nature to take its course. Showing us how mama cheetah fends off a pride of lions who are looking at her cubs like they’re an amuse bouce is riveting stuff but occasionally the movie seems contrived. It’s a nature—but not completely natural—documentary.

Case in point. When an older lioness leaves her pride for the last time, meaningful looks are exchanged between the old lion and her former friends with the kind of dramatic editing that would make the producers of “The Hills” envious. On the African savannah life is interesting enough without having to cobble together shots for dramatic effect.

Most dramatic of all are the hunting scenes, although they are most definitely not for little Jimmy’s eyes. In one sequence Samuel L. Jackson purrs, “Success. Cheetah’s cubs will not go hungry tonight,” as the cat pulls apart a gazelle she has just hunted and killed. There are several circle of life scenes that will freak younger viewers out, so be warned.

“African Cats” has all the elements of a good story; there are heroes—like the mother cheetah—and villains—hyenas apparently, are no laughing matter; not even the animal huggers of PETA could love these nasty little buggers—and real life conflict. Too bad it occasionally feels manipulated.

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