A scene from "African Cats." (Marguerite Smits Van Oyen…)
"African Cats," a striking Disneynature documentary about the life journeys of lions and cheetahs, could be subtitled "What's for Dinner?" given its preoccupation with these majestic animals' search for sustenance. It can be a cat-eat-cat world out there — until, say, a pack of hyenas shows up. And when that happens, believe me, it's no laughing matter.
In fact, despite its family-friendly trappings, "Cats" is largely serious stuff; deliberately paced, thematically dark and often wistfully told, with enough moments of survival-oriented tension and dread to question its G rating (a scene of lions feasting on a zebra is one of several daunting images that might disturb youngsters).
That said, director Keith Scholey and co-director Alastair Fothergill, along with cinematographers Owen Newman and Sophie Darlington, have crafted a visually and aurally stunning film that brings viewers up close and very personal with several "big cat" families — as well as a dazzling array of other safari-esque species — living in Kenya's sprawling Masai Mara National Reserve.
Scholey and Newman created a screen story to help shape the filmmakers' 21/2 years of high-definition shooting, which tracked two rival lion prides and a cheetah brood. Although, at times, the script (credited to Scholey and screenwriting guru John Truby) seems a bit contrived — is the footage driving the story or vice versa? — it's an audience-inclusive approach that's enhanced by Samuel L. Jackson's dynamic narration.
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release