Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Feel the Pride: The Last Lions

Over the last half century, the lion population has declined from roughly 450,000 to something in the 20,000 range. Mankind might be a reckless predator, but the greatest threats posed to young lion cubs are often other lions on the hunt. Nature can indeed be cruel, as viewers see in no uncertain terms throughout Dereck & Beverly Joubert’s true wildlife documentary The Last Lions (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

While a film’s distributor is usually immaterial to its merits, the imprimatur of National Geographic Entertainment establishes instant credibility for a nature film like Last Lions. Unlike the old Disney True Life Adventures (at least as most of us probably remember them), the Jouberts are not afraid to show the brutality of life in the wild. There will be blood, from both predator and prey alike.

Single motherhood is a difficult proposition in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but Ma di Tau (or “Mother of Lions” as the Jouberts refer to her) will tenaciously fight to protect her cubs—the last of her pride. Avoiding human settlements, their biggest concern is a rival pride led by “Silver Eye,” an aggressive, battle-scarred lioness. Of course, food is also a pressing issue. Unfortunately, the neighboring buffalo herd constitutes decidedly dangerous game.

While the law of the jungle is clearly brutish and unforgiving, the filmmakers also capture its rough beauty. It is amazing what director-cinematographer Dereck Joubert was able to capture on film, with up-close-and-personal intimacy. Through his lens, viewers also witness atypical behavior for lions born of desperation, as Ma di Tau and her cubs reluctantly swim out to Duba Island to escape Silver Eye and her fellow huntresses.

Though the Jouberts convey a vivid sense of the animals’ personalities and emotions, actor Jeremy Irons’ narration is a tad overblown, approaching the hyped-up tenor of NFL Films’ voice-overs: “but for Ma di Tau, there would come another day.” Even if it is corny at times, it all works together rather effectively as Joubert’s striking visuals and Irons’ silky tones rally viewer sympathy for Ma di Tau and her cubs.

This is the natural world. Not to drop any spoilers, but parents should be aware, getting emotionally attached during the PG-rated Last Lions might lead to some disappointment for younger viewers. Adults however, should appreciate the Jouberts’ editorial integrity. Yet, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film is watching the lions locked in mortal combat, even though it does not serve the overall interests of their dwindling species. Tragically, the territorial imperative is simply too deeply ingrained.

Of course, the filmmakers hasten to add viewers can help, including a pitch for the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative just as the concluding credits role. While not exactly subtle, it hardly detracts from an impressive work of nature filmmaking. Far surpassing PBS programming, Last Lions is engaging look at a powerful but endangered species, recommended for animal watchers when it opens in New York this Friday (2/18) at the Angelika Film Center.