I’d like to watch Disney’s new nature documentary, African Cats, with Werner Herzog. The German filmmaker — director of the unforgettable Grizzly Man and the excellent Encounters at the End of the World (among many other works) — has an interest in exploring the ways in which we humans interact with our environment. To Herzog, the wild is a brutal place. He’s known for making pronouncements such as this, from Grizzly Man: “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”
So I’d love to sit down with him, to hear what he’d have to say in his droll monotone, about this 89-minute movie chock-full of wholesome shots of cute little cheetah and lion cubs at play. Animals, they’re just like us! — the anthropomorphic narration (delivered by Samuel L. Jackson) implies with lines like how one young lion thinks her father is “the best dad ever!”
That’s not to say that life’s all peachy for these big cats on the African savanna. The story that the filmmakers have culled from their footage, shot on a reserve in Kenya, centers on two families: a pride of lions and a lone female cheetah raising her cubs. It’s a cat-eat-cat world, and there’s so much death and suffering that one might easily embrace a Herzogian view of nature.
However, this is a Disney family film, so we’re spared seeing directly the worst of the violence, and despite many difficulties, (most) of the protagonists manage to survive and prosper for another day. It’s the strength of their families, including the guidance of their parents, that allows them to thrive. Hey, that’s just like us too!
The film contains some beautiful photography. I found hypnotic a slow-motion shot of a cheetah closing in on her prey, her limbs striding in a perfect rhythm and each muscle rippling in the sunlight. But there’s nothing you’ve not seen before if you’ve spent any time watching National Geographic specials. It’s a bit of a mystery why this movie deserved a theatrical release at all (aside from the decent box office returns garnered by the previous Disney Nature films, Earth and Oceans), since it’s only about as good as most of what you can find any night on Animal Planet.