The family drama “Mia and the White Lion” breathes the same air as “Born Free,” “The Black Stallion” and even “Bedtime for Bonzo.” While it feels like many other humans-and-their-beloved-animal films is its political stance. Woven into the story is strong criticism of South African laws that allow lions to be sold and hunted in enclosed areas. “It’s the way South Africa works,” says Mia’s father John (Langley Kirkwood). “It’s the way it has always worked.”
When we first meet Mia Owen (Daniah De Villiers) she is a young girl upset about leaving her life and friends in London behind when her family moves to South Africa. Alone, separated from all she knows, Mia makes an unusual friend, Charlie, a white lion cub born on her father’s farm. Three years in Mia’s parents worry about her safety. Charlie has grown and while the bond between he and his human is strong, for her own safety Mia’s parents forbid her to see her best friend. When it appears Mia’s father will sell Charlie to hunters to protect his daughter the plucky teen steps up to save her leonine buddy.
Like the Oscar winning “Boyhood,” director Gilles de Maistre’s “Mia and the White Lion” was shot over the course of several years. That allowed De Villiers to form a relationship with Charlie in real life as well as convincingly grow up on screen. The process makes for some startling, realistic moments between Charlie and his lion whispering friend. Unfortunately, their intimacy is the only really surprising thing about the movie. Good messaging about animal welfare aside, “Mia and the White Lion” relies a little too heavily on predictable, family film tropes and cardboard characters to maintain interest.