Thursday, April 21, 2011

African Cats: Disnifying the wild Savannah

The first thing you should probably know about African Cats is that, despite its being billed as such, in no way should this Disney production be mistaken for a documentary. (Okay, actually, the first and perhaps last thing you need to know is that it's Disney, but I'm not willing to wrap this up quite so patly.) Brimming with truly spectacular, no doubt arduously apprehended images of Kenyan flora and fauna, of mist, thunderheads and endless skies, the presence of the cameras recording the action are never acknowledged; though the film features plenty of fighting and killing, the bloody brutality and messy mating habits of the film’s subjects are discreetly eschewed; Harry Potter composer Nicholas Hooper’s heavily illustrative score emphasizes adventure movie theatrics over observational accentuation; and while Samuel L. Jackson’s colour commentary runs all over this thing there’s a conspicuous dearth of zoological facts to be gleaned. Unless you consider “water buffalos are grumpy” to be a statement of high educational value.

Assigning names to and even presuming to discern the thoughts of its cast of lions, cheetahs and crocodiles, (“To Mara, Fang is the best dad
ever”), Jackson’s effortlessly charismatic voice-over anthropomorphizes these animals to the max, exploiting their abundant cuteness to explore, among other themes, the difficulty of single-parenting. (Incidentally, Fang’s not such an ideal patriarch after all: he hogs all the food, abandons his wife, and doesn’t say thanks when the lady lions defend the pride from a rival lion gang. The narrative imposed on these animals is not dissimilar to that of a gangster saga, replete with a conflicted moral code about traditional family values.) Highly questionable as this approach may be, there’s no argument that it can occasionally prove perfectly entertaining, such as in the scene where Jackson offers a sotto-voiced approval of a cheetah’s attack on a gazelle (“Successssss!”). It makes you wish co-directors Alastair Fothergil and Keith Scholey would have let Jackson off the leash a little more so he could go all the way and improvise a few funny voices for the animals. Alas, if only Disney didn’t cling to their irritating dictum to render everything at once tasteful and utterly shameless.

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