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04/22/2011

'Cats' -- Way off-off-Broadway and real

So much for the carefree hakuna matata (No worries for the rest of your days) when it comes to the nature documentary "African Cats."

The circle of life plays out in harsh reality in the third modern-day feature from the Disneynature division of the Mouse House.

Co-directed by seasoned nature filmmakers Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill ("Deep Blue," "Earth"), "African Cats" does an excellent job of showcasing chosen lions and cheetahs as they live, love, hunt and fight for survival in Kenya's savanna.

Unlike Disney's beloved "Lion King," which had its share of life-or-death situations, "African Cats" makes it clear from the opening credits that survival of the fittest in this wild will eventually get around to the sad facts of unfortunate life.

Whether this G-rated film is suited for "general audiences; all ages admitted" is best up to parents, of course. The gritty nature of the subject matter (lions attacking lions, a lion standing down a hissing alligator, etc.), however, would make it impossible for this critic to expose the harsh real world to a child under the age of 7 or so.

Samuel L. Jackson, a very able actor, narrates "African Cats" with enthusiasm. By giving all the key animals names, though, the filmmakers blur the line between entertainment and what could have been a spectacular fly-on-the-wall approach to just allowing nature to run its course on its own terms.

There's no question Scholey and Fothergill, as well as their talented crew, showed admirable patience over the course of more than two years to allow the captured saga to play out.

In "African Cats," the audience gets equal doses of playful lion cubs or newborn cheetahs tumbling over each other as they depend on Mom for protection and guidance.

In the real world, though, as is shown here, not all babies survive. And the hyenas that strike during a brilliantly photographed storm really do appear to be laughing, eerily, at their prey.

The directors are careful not to show bloody kills and graphic mating.

I wonder, then, if their attempts to shield the audience from the harshest reality is short-changing the "nature" half of the Disneynature business plan?

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