The Last Lions
March goes out like a lion with National Geographic’s hard-hitting nature documentary
The Last Lions
Directed by Dereck Joubert
Cast: Narrated by Jeremy Irons
Throughout the ’50s, Walt Disney produced a series of notable wildlife documentaries called True-Life Adventures. Heavy on narration, ginned-up drama and the sort of anthropomorphism for which Uncle Walt was famous, the documentaries inspired generations of filmmakers, environmentalists and outdoorsmen.
Although it seems as if cable television (Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, et al) has assumed the role once filled by Disney’s old two-reelers, there’s been some renewed interest in nature documentaries on the big screen in recent years. Disney got back in the game with its now annual Earth Day offerings (Earth, Oceans and the upcoming African Cats). National Geographic, meanwhile, founded its own feature film division, co-presenting such award-winning docs as March of the Penguins and The Story of the Weeping Camel (not to mention non-animal-based films like the much-praised war doc Restrepo). The company’s latest nature documentary, released entirely under the National Geographic Entertainment banner, is The Last Lions.
The Last Lions is the work of award-winning eco filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. The husband-and-wife team have been photographing wildlife for more than 30 years. According to Disney, their work was a major inspiration to the animators of The Lion King. (Well, that and the entire plot from Osamu Tezuka’s pioneering manga/anime Kimba The White Lion.) Basically, when it comes to animals and cameras, the Jouberts are the go-to guys.
The style of The Last Lions hews closely to Disney’s old True-Life Adventures model. We start with a single story strand and a central “character.” In this case, it’s the tragedy-and-triumph tale of a female lion who loses her mate and daringly crosses a crocodile-infested river in Botswana’s Okavango Delta in order to protect her three young cubs. Of course, we’ve got heavy narration, thick with purple prose, courtesy of classy Brit Jeremy Irons. And as a crowning touch, the filmmakers expend a great deal of effort assigning as many human characteristics as possible to our animal stars. The lioness is given a name, Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”), and her story is presented as a breathless, brutal tale of action, adventure and survival.
It’s not that The Last Lions feels false. As with all nature documentaries, it’s difficult to tell if the footage is presented in the exact order and context in which it was shot, or if it was carefully edited for maximum emotional impact. What is clear, though, is the The Last Lions is one of the more dramatic nature documentaries you’ll come across. Unashamedly so.
Cinematography on most nature documentaries, for example, is simple: Find the highest resolution cameras on the planet and point them at living things. That was more or less the dictate of the BBC’s eye-boggling series “Planet Earth” (footage from which was recycled into Disney’s Earth). But the Jouberts take a different approach with The Last Lions. Their goal is emotional resonance. As a result, the imagery in The Last Lions is occasionally quite stylized. Dark when the mood demands it, mysterious when necessary, epic when called for. You could say this is a manipulative approach to filmmaking. And it clearly is. The Jouberts are trying to make this film as melodramatic as possible. Damned if it isn’t. Aside from some self-conscious camera work and a lot of speculation on Mr. Irons’ part as to what Ma di Tau is feeling at any particular moment, however, The Last Lions is authentic, raw and painfully real.
This is not cute ’n’ cuddly family-style entertainment. It’s a brutally honest story about survival in the wilderness. The film doesn’t pull any punches. While The Last Lions may be appropriate for older children, it ain’t exactly warm and fuzzy. Yes, baby animals are cute, but they’re also nature’s equivalent to fast food. Best to leave the little ones at home with a copy of March of the Penguins. Even without the encroachment and intervention of humans, wild animals face a tough world. While the film frames itself as an impassioned plea to protect the last remaining wild lions and their ever-shrinking environment, it sure doesn’t make Mother Nature look like a pleasant mistress. If I were a young lion and happened to catch a screening of The Last Lions, I’d run screaming to the nearest zoo.
After crossing the crocodile-infested river, our four-legged heroine must face countless other obstacles—from marauding rival lionesses to deadly swamps to none-too-willing prey animals. (Trust me, water buffalo are no chumps.) The Last Lions is a tense film. It’s neither a cheerful travel brochure about the great outdoors nor a doom-and-gloom forecast about the destruction of the natural world. The Last Lions is no more and no less than a gripping, warts-and-all (or is that warthogs-and-all?) glimpse at life and death in the animal kingdom.