April 19, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tim Allen (narrator) and a bunch of chimpanzees, a few monkeys, and a leopard
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill (“Earth”) and Mark Linfield (“Earth”)

It’s often hard to keep straight, but there are differences between monkeys and apes. I imagine most people use the terms interchangeably, since each word gives you the basic idea of what you’re dealing with: a primate with a penchant for swinging from trees and flinging their poop. Here’s an easy tip to tell them apart: monkeys have tails, apes do not. Chimpanzees, the primates featured in “Chimpanzee,” are apes. And, holy crap, chimpanzees eat monkeys.

“Chimpanzee,” the latest family-friendly documentary from Disneynature, follows a young chimpanzee named Oscar and the trials he and his small group of chimps encounter in an African rainforest, from the constant hunt for food to the perils of defending their territory from a rival group of chimpanzees.

As it always does in Disneynature films, truly stunning photography steals the show. Cameras fly over  wispy clouds, lush rainforest, and amazingly intricate waterfalls. Zip line-mounted cameras creep from treetop to treetop, giving the audience nearly impossible views of the aforementioned monkeys being hunted for lunch by Oscar’s group. And underneath the canopy on the forest floor, cameras give us incredibly intimate looks at these chimpanzees, from the adorable Oscar trying in vain to smash a nut to the grizzled alpha male Freddy being groomed by his underlings.

Less successful is the narration by Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear of the “Toy Story” franchise) and the story it crafts. Allen is fine, even managing to throw in his trademark grunt about power tools, but the storyline sanitizes the reality of what we’re watching to, well, Disney levels. A tragedy that befalls Oscar is scrubbed clean enough to plug into an animated movie, and the “evil” rival chimpanzees are laughably vilified (their leader is even given the name Scar, for crying out loud) when they’re just trying to survive in the same manner our heroes are.

As the credits roll, we’re introduced to the actual film crew as they trek into the rainforest to set up the incredible camera set-ups and express genuine delight at the workings of chimpanzee society unfolding in front of their lenses. Might I suggest an alternate audio track to Allen’s narration featuring these filmmakers on the DVD release for those of us that don’t need the realities of nature to be Disneyfied?

Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill – African Cats

April 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Interviews

For English filmmaker Keith Scholey, there is something addictive about waking up and watching what he refers to as a “natural family soap opera.”

“Each day you get up and wonder what is going to happen and how it’s going to play out,” Scholey said.

While it might sound like Scholey is getting his fix on daytime TV, he’s actually capturing stories in nature with a lot more drama.

In the new Disneynature documentary “African Cats,” Scholey and fellow filmmaker Alastair Fothergill journey to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya to follow and film a lion family and cheetah family, who are both struggling to survive in the African savanna.

During an interview with me, Scholey and Fothergill, who studied zoology in England before producing wildlife entertainment for TV and film, talked about the beauty and intrigue of “African Cats.”

How aware are these animals of the film crew’s presence and how does that affect the way they behave?

Keith Scholey: There are lots of tourists who travel in their vehicles to the place we picked to make the film – the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Those animals are completely used to having vehicles there. The beauty of it is you can move around and they’ll completely ignore you. We can literally be a fly on the wall and see what’s going on.

Some people would say a film like “African Cats” is something you can easily find on the Discovery channel. What would you say to those people who might be overlooking the complete movie-going experience?

Alastair Fothergill: First, I think the big screen really takes you there in a much more powerful way than TV ever could. I think the most important thing is that the movie has a very strong emotional storyline. We didn’t want to make a TV documentary; we wanted to make a movie. Also, a movie has a budget that allows for us to be out there for much more time than we would for a TV show. As a result, there are a lot of things in “African Cats” that have never been seen before.

How intense does it get watching these animals and do the things you see affect you anymore since you’ve been working in this field for so long?

KS: You certainly do get used to seeing these animals on a day to day basis. To know these animals more and more allows you to really get into their lives and understand their day to day challenges and the drama of what they go through. What you see in the film is how it really plays out, but just a little toned down.

Since “African Cats” is a family film, do you have to make a conscious decision to stay away from the more brutal parts of nature?

AF: You probably noticed, but once the cheetah grabs the gazelle, we cut away pretty quickly. We never dwelled on any of the gore. At the same time, we all know nature is red in tooth and claw so we didn’t shy away from the fact that the lions have very powerful battles. We had to find a way for it to be exciting without being too frightening for very young children.

Do you still learn things about these animals while you are shooting these films, or do you have them pretty figured out by now?

KS: It’s always a surprise. In this movie, we could have never envisioned what was going to happen. We didn’t know these lions regularly cross the Mara River. We certainly didn’t know crocodiles attack lions when they swim across the river. Every single time we make a movie like this we learn things. It’s a constant revelation.

There have been a few nature films to hit theaters early this year – “The Last Lions,” “Born to Be Wild,” and now “African Cats.” What is it about the nature documentary people find so intriguing?

AF: A lot of cinema is artificial and created by CGI. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there is a real desire to see a real, natural experience. Many people live very urban lives, so to get the opportunity to escape is very rewarding. We hope we’ve combined amazing scenery with a very powerful story.

African Cats

April 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson (narrator)
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill (“Earth”) and Keith Scholey (debut)

“Who would win in a fight — a gorilla covered in armor or a cobra that spits acid from its fangs?” These were the type of brain-busters my poor parents would have to answer when I was in elementary school; my oversized head filled with useless questions about hypothetical battles between vicious animals I conjured up in my imagination.

It didn’t matter how much time my mom and dad actually wasted making educated guesses just to shut me up. Any answer they gave was the wrong one. Answer gorilla, and I’d ask how that was possible since the venomous acid would easily disintegrate the ape’s iron suit. Answer snake, and I’d wonder why they didn’t consider the limited distance the projectile poison could actually travel airborne, especially if the gorilla climbed a tree or something. Grown-ups.

Flash forward 25 years and I’m sitting on the edge of my seat watching the wildlife documentary “African Cats” as a majestic alpha lion stands at the edge of a river in Kenya staring into the nostrils of a hissing crocodile. My boyhood sense of wonder rushes back as the predators refuse to give way to one another. The visceral scene is so captivating, I’m not the least bit interested why neither of them reaches for their nunchakus.

But this isn’t make-believe like so many other family movies that play for entertainment value alone. There are some important lessons to be learned here; this is a story about an animal’s fight to survive in its natural environment. And while it does get the Disney gloss-over that keeps it sitting safely on a G-rated level, kids will still get the idea of just how the circle of life works without seeing the more savage parts of nature (translation: the big cats roar and bite, but they also mind their manners while ripping apart a gazelle with the help of some kid-friendly editing).

As the third theatrical U.S. release from the Disney offshoot known as Disneynature (“Earth” and “Oceans” debuted on Earth Day in 2009 and 2010 respectively), “African Cats” is in good hands with directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill capturing breathtaking footage while combing the African savanna. The narrative, which divides its time between a pride of lions and a coalition of cheetahs, is not unlike what you may find on the Discovery Channel or inside the pages of National Geographic. Once magnified for the big screen, however, the film takes on a whole new dynamic.

In “African Cats,” Scholey and Fothergill, both of whom have spent their lives working in some capacity in wilderness TV and film, set up shop on the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya. Here they follow Sita, a lone female cheetah and her five helpless cubs, and Layla, an aging lioness and her single cub who are both protected by her pride. Also at the center of the lion’s story is the pride’s defender Fang, identified by the dangling tooth he earned in a lion vs. lion scuffle. To the north, another dominant beast named Kali and his four intimidating sons wait for their opportunity to journey south and invade new territory.

“African Cats” comes on the heels of the IMAX film “Born to be Wild 3D,” which features playful baby elephants and orangutans, and “The Last Lions,” a much darker and overall fulfilling nature documentary set in Botswana that explores more complex themes including grief and abandonment. But it doesn’t break new ground in its recently industrious genre. Instead, it manages to be relevant by photography alone. Without the sweeping aerial shots and the rest of the , the documentary doesn’t add up to more than standard, harmless wilderness fare for the kiddos.

Even with narration by Mr. Badass himself, Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction,” “The Incredibles”), “African Cats” refuses to let its claws out to take advantage of his smooth voiceover. I jest, but imagine how hilarious it would have been to have Jackson deliver the line, “I have had it with these mother******* lions and their mother******* manes!” At least parents could’ve use the “Snakes on a Plane” reference next time one of their kids asks if a lion with a laser beam really is king of the jungle.