Earth Day becomes Mother's Day in "African Cats," a magnificent new wildlife documentary from Disneynature. It's an engrossing and often moving film built around the fierce protect-my-young instincts of a lioness and a female cheetah struggling against the odds on the Kenyan Masai Mara savanna.
Almost every shot is a postcard-perfect African vista, and every animal is shown in majestic close-up -- lions, cheetahs, hyenas and aardvarks -- even the homely wildebeest, their snouts covered in flies.
And yes, almost every situation and story thread duplicates what National Geographic did with its March documentary, "The Last Lions." But it's not a put-down of the darker and more straightforward "Last Lions" to suggest "Cats" is to "Lions" what poetry is to prose.
Music, image and narration combine in the Disney film to present life and death, up close (and yet almost bloodless), capturing a world where man isn't yet the biggest threat -- other lions and everybody's favorite monster, the crocodiles, are.
A river separates two prides of lions. In one, the aged Layla raises her female cub, Mara, living under the dubious protection of Fang. On the other side of the river, Kali and his sons covet Fang's pride and plot their assault.
Sita the cheetah raises her brood of five cubs on her own, a single mom. "Built for speed, but not staying power," as Samuel L. Jackson narrates, she can run down most any game animal she sees. But protecting her cubs, taunting and luring away threatening lions and hyenas, eats up much of her energy.
Filmmakers Keith Scholey ("Big Cat Diary") and Alistair Fothergill ("Deep Blue," "Earth") showcase the animals to great effect, letting us appreciate their beauty, their exquisite design.
The filmmakers occasionally capture the cute -- cuddly cubs wrestling. But they don't shy away from the daily brutality of the "circle of life" -- as we see in slow-motion takedowns of gazelles and zebras, whole herds of them bleating in alarm. Death was more gruesome and more emotionally wrenching in "The Last Lions," which treated us to one cute cub pulled under by a croc and another, broken-backed and left to die after an assault by other lions. There's nothing remotely that traumatic in "African Cats."
But Jackson's enthusiastic performance of the narration, even managing the odd joke ("Herding cats is never easy."), the splendid images and especially the wonderful sound -- cheetah calls, grunting aardvarks wrestling, lions trying to muster up their most menacing roar -- make "the Disney version" of the hard life "lived by tooth and claw" both educational and terrific, kid-friendly entertainment.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
NARRATED BY: Samuel L. Jackson
DIRECTOR: Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill
RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes
THE LOWDOWN: A Disneynature documentary about two animal families in Africa and their struggle for survival.