Few genres have as fixed a vocabulary as the nature film, where each new work seems like a form waiting to be filled in. Even groundbreaking attempts like the Planet Earth series, while scaling up the technical ingenuity and budget, adhere to a fixed structure, wherein animals are introduced, gently humanized, then bundled into an overarching narrative. The Last Lions, which makes use of similar technological advances to offer a stunning depiction of big cats in action, also performs small tweaks to this formula, some good, some bad.
The bad comes in the form of the aggressive anthropomorphizing of the film’s lion protagonists, who are combed endlessly for thoughts and motivations, their story twisted to fit a standard three-act narrative. Jeremy Irons’s narration applies a storybook quality to the proceedings (the film is presented “as told by” him) which inevitably feels silly, overreaching to brand human emotions on animals whose impulses and behaviors, despite common parallels, have very little to do with ours. So much of what these lions experience is so unimaginably harsh that this technique, which repeatedly delves into their minds to imagine what they may thinking, feels trite and childish.
The good comes via the film’s visuals, which, especially in the opening section, are dazzling. The montage is so fluid and assured, combining static shots with slow-motion action and landscape inserts, that it makes the narration seem even more superfluous. The image of animals cast in haze against a red sky, like the face of a wounded male crusted with gore and flies, transcends the usual workmanlike quality of field images and land squarely in the realm of visual art. Had this been paired with a less ordinary presentation, like the hands-off staging of Sweetgrass, The Last Lions might have completely transcended its genre.
The film at least partially makes up for its failings by not pulling punches on the lions’ story, which if shoehorned into an unnaturally neat arc at least doesn’t edit nature’s tough truths. This itself feels just a little bit suspect, resulting in a tugging at the heartstrings that gives way to solicitation of funds (a phone number to text donations appears at the end), but the film is at least up front about its advocacy for these animals, whose numbers have fallen drastically in the last 50 years.
So much is contained in the film, from real technical virtuosity to heart-wrenching moments of pathos, that it’s a shame it seems satisfied to be so ordinary in other aspects. The story told, like some twisted version of The Lion King where Simba is trampled by a herd of cape buffalo, is dark and cruel enough that nudging it toward uplift feels consistently unnatural. For perspective, it’s fun to imagine what it might have become in the hands of Werner Herzog, whose grim fatalism would have likely shaped a completely different product. Instead, The Last Lions hitches itself to a simplistic narrative, adopting ill-fitting themes of motherhood and female empowerment. This cheapens the film, stuffing the wild unpredictability of its creatures into an unnecessarily strict template.