Disney doesn’t exactly have a phenomenal track record when it comes to nature documentaries what with them pushing a whole load of lemmings off cliffs in order to perpetuate the myth that they commit suicide en mass in their 1958 film Wild Wilderness.
So, with African Cats, a film that follows a pride of lions and a family of cheetahs in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, I was hoping they’d go the whole hog and just make a load of stuff up. Did you know that lions actually have eight retractable legs and build huge webs to entrap gazelles? That cheetahs have wheels embedded in their chests which enable them to move faster? That elephants are venomous?
Sadly, no, it’s a fairly straightforward documentary about a pride of lions and a cheetah family who live on either side of a river. It’s full of gorgeous photography – picture postcard sunsets, endless swathes of savannah, huge electrical thunderstorms that take place on a horizon which contains one solitary tree. All very impressive, but nothing that can’t be found outside a BBC documentary about the same subject, or for that matter ITV’s Wild At Heart.
All of this speaks for itself, as do the cats. There are reams of footage of unbelievably cute and fluffy cubs and their antics (a highlight being a scene where a duo tries to get into a tortoise that hides inside its shell like an armoured Cornish pasty) and plenty of beautiful shots of majestic felines silhouetted against the sun.
But glorious as the footage is, it’s incredibly light on factual content. Patrick Stewart (replacing Samuel L Jackson for this British version) sounds like he’s narrating a Tropicana commercial which is creepily smarmy rather than authoritative. And like March Of The Penguins, there’s this horrible, grating insistence on ascribing human characteristics to animals.
So there’s scant mention on how cats are evolutionarily adapted to hunt but plenty of mention of how “there’s nothing stronger than the bond between mother and child” and even goes so far as to constantly refer to cheetah matriarch Sita as a “single mother” for the entire duration.
It’s far more concerned with its “plot” than it is with showing anything authentic and such anthropomorphisation has no place in a documentary. Granted, it’s aimed at a younger audience, but kids are always more captivated by the facts of nature which are more interesting and wondrous than this contrived overly-fluffy mulch. A night in with an Attenborough boxed set would be infinitely more illuminating.