Disneynature has come a long way since 'Earth ,' which was basically a condensed version of BBC's 'Planet Earth ' complete with duplicated footage, just different narration and a storyline that favored animal families rather than spanning the globe and highlighting the cool stuff that's out there.
'African Cats' is probably the best installment in Disneynature's line of movies, although I really enjoyed 'Oceans ' also. 'African Cats,' filmed on location at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, the Disneynature team is able to tell the stories of three very different families.
First we have a family of cheetahs. The mother named Sita cares for her five cubs, in the harsh and unforgiving land. Endless attacks by hyenas and threats from rival cheetahs threaten their very existence. A pride of lions rests nearby. Their leader is a large male named Fang, because of his broken tooth that just hangs there. A wound from a past battle. Fang leads a pride of a handful of lionesses. The oldest lioness is on her last legs. She leads the hunts, because she's the most experienced, but her time is slowly drawing to a close. Her last hope is to get the other lionesses to adopt her daughter as their own, so when she moves on, they'll take care of her. Finally, across the river are the bullies. A brute of a lion named Kalla who has a gang of four other large males who are his sons. He's looking to take over the entire land and push Fang out of his territory.
It's truly a harrowing experience watching these animals fight for survival on a daily basis. The cheetahs are constantly harassed by other animals who would be more than willing to snatch up a few of her cubs for dinner. It's hard to watch really. Some of the cubs don't fare too well. Though we're spared from watching the tiny cheetahs get torn apart by ravenous predators, it does conjure up an opportunity for parents to discuss life and death in real terms with their children.
That's what I like so much about 'African Cats.' While it shies away from the more gruesome aspects of nature, it doesn't try to dilute heavy issues like death, survival, life, love, caring, and hunger. These are all real issues that not only face animals every day, but us. This movie may be a little too intense for younger children, but it does provide numerous opportunities for parents to sit down and discuss these weightier subjects with their kids. Not too many movies allow parents to do that.
Samuel L. Jackson narrates, and for me it's the one glaring weakness the movie has. I'm sorry, but he's just the wrong choice. Every line he utters sounds like he's furious at whomever made him narrate this film. Have you ever heard Jackson read audiobook of "Go the F*** to Sleep"? Well, if you have then you know what you're in for. It's almost like he's reading what should be a straightforward commentary on what's going on, with a hint of disdain and sarcasm. It's terribly off-putting.
'African Cats' does do what so many other nature documentaries do. It anthropomorphizes the animals. Gives them names, abstract feelings, motives, and desires. This is just something that you have to deal with when it comes to nature documentaries. Truthfully, it's impossible for the filmmakers to know how a lion is feeling inside, or what their true motives are. Although, throughout the movie it's plain to see that these animals do indeed have complex feelings happening even though they can't articulate them like we can. It's still amazing to watch. I enjoyed 'African Cats' and would recommend it for family viewing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Disney release and as such it comes with a slipcover and a Blu-ray/DVD combo. There are Disney Movie Rewards inside. The Blu-ray is a 50GB disc, and it's housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The case indicates Region Free status.
The visuals here rival anything the BBC has put out. 'African Cats' looks tremendous throughout the entire film, save one or two minor hiccups. On the whole the 1080p Disney presentation is an awe-inspiring site.
The numerous close-ups of feline backs as they sneak up on their prey reveal tiny strands of hair that are perfectly defined. Hair never bunches or clumps together in unrecognizable blobs. Edges are defined and distinct. Colors are strong. The vivid yellow of the cheetahs' coats burns in the hot African sun. It's easy to discern the slightly different shades of manes that adorn the few male lions in the movie. The greenery of the pride land is contrasted well by the rich muddy browns of the river bank. The stark blue sky encompasses everything giving the entire movie a realistic natural look. The texture of the fur here is top-notch. The detail leaps off the screen.
There are a few nighttime scenes, and while noise spikes ever-so-slightly, I have to say that this is some of the best nighttime/night vision footage I've seen in a while. It isn't nearly as noisy as other nature documentaries. The hyena attack at night has a nice glow like the entire scene is being bathed in the bluish light of the moon. Blacks are always deep. Shadows are distinctly delineated adding depth to the picture. For the most part 'African Cats' is complete demo material. One of the best looking nature docs out there.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation is no slouch either. This thing packs a real punch. The first thing you'll notice is the heft and weight afforded to the deep thunderous roars from the male lions. They grow in intensity until the entire soundfield is filled with low-end rumbling that is truly engaging. LFE thumps as a thunderous rainstorm moves in. The surrounds come alive with action as the rain pours down around the families of lions and cheetahs.
Jackson's narration is always clear (but, that doesn't help its cheesiness). It isn't just the deep roaring that is on display here. In fact the more nuanced sounds like the tiny yelps of excitement from the cheetah cubs or the premature growls from the lion cubs are all given ample room to show off their stuff. These types of cute growls and yelps are always clear and offer a more dynamic range. Directionality works hard as growls, squeaks, and howls are constantly happening whether the animals are in frame or not. Nicholas Hooper's score, while a bit ham-fisted, is well represented here. Ample LFE is provided for the more intense moments, like when the gang of ne'er-do-well lions crosses over the river to take on Fang.
This audio presentation will keep you engaged and engrossed throughout the movie's runtime. It's got everything you'd want in a near demo sounding title.
The title 'African Cats' doesn't really convey the type of drama or suspense that's awaiting you when you view this film. There's so much more to this movie than just looking at some cats from Africa. The themes presented here are great teaching tools for parents looking to explain the more complex issues of life to their kids. I'm not saying that it's a necessity that you do so, but the opportunity is always there. The video and audio are both astounding. The special features leave a lot to be desired. I was hoping for another Living Menu like on 'Earth,' or 'Oceans' but no such luck. The PiP commentary does provide a lot of great information though. 'African Cats' is recommended viewing for families everywhere.