Our oceans are larger than our landmasses, and countless—many undiscovered—creatures dwell within their titanic depths. But rather than convey the mysteries of the ocean deep by focusing on the lifecycle of a few sea critters, Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, makers of the breathtaking Oceans, thought bigger, absorbing only as much of the sea’s wonders that time, money, and technology allowed, presenting our majestic oceans to us as an eye-catching collage of beauty and dread, environs as mysterious and worthy of our protection as the air that fills our lungs.
Disneynature’s new film, African Cats, isn’t quite so philosophically minded. More like a Disneyland attraction, it grossly anthropomorphizes the circle of life that connects the lions and cheetahs that live in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. The doc’s visual approach, as fetching as it is dodgy, isn’t the problem per se: Directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey’s near-obsessive fixation on documenting the instinctual imperatives of their subjects is studied, hypnotic even, though you’re always aware of who the G-rated film is directed at (a slow-mo shot of a hungry lioness chasing after a wildebeest culminates with the lioness sinking her teeth into her prey, but from the blocking they may as well be necking). What really boggles the mind is Samuel L. Jackson’s ghetto narration, which, as curiously and tastelessly written, would have us believe that the lives of African cats are not unlike the lives of…people living in the ghetto?
Meet Fang, leader of the river pride, who clearly didn’t get his bad-ass name until after a fight—probably with some pimp—left him with a broken tooth. Everything’s aight in this particularly scenic hood when the zebras and wildebeests are chillin’ on their terrain, but when the seasons take them elsewhere, a turf war ensues between Fang’s gang and northsider Kali’s posse. Caught in the middle of the lion drama is the courageous Sita, a foxy cheetah explicitly referred to as a “single mother,” but what happened to her baby daddy is left completely to our imaginations. In the end, all that’s missing from this vision of Africa-as-Compton is the bling.
African Cats is rich in on-the-plain minutia, but the plain doesn’t always feel like a plain, as the film’s anthropomorphization of its cast of critters is rife with allusions to African-American social reality. There’s a whole lot of a territory-pissing, some wife-swapping, even a hyena-initiated drive-by that claims the life of a bunch of Sita’s cubs. You watch this animal-kingdom melodrama wishing it was completely divorced from the alliteration-rich, pun-friendly narration (“Fang the protector demands the lion’s share” is a notable howler), which an overzealous Jackson eagerly delivers with the cool, smug menace of Kaa from The Jungle Book. With it, a passable Discovery Channel special is not only infantilized but given the feel of a Spike Lee joint.