Parents be warned: The characters in the latest Disney film frequently attack each other, sometimes eat each other, and spend the entire running time naked. Before you ring up the MPAA, I suppose you should also know that the stars of the G-rated "African Cats" are animals.
Still, you almost wouldn't know it from the script of this nature documentary, which hard-sells the anthropomorphic qualities of its stars: lions and cheetahs, with a supporting cast that includes buffalo, crocodiles, elephants, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, jackals, ostriches, rhino, Thompson's gazelles, warthogs and zebras. "Buffalo," narrator Samuel L. Jackson informs us, "are grumpy." And, he says, "There's nothing better for a lion than close companionship." Well, that and a good, rare wildebeest carcass. Those lions: They're just like us.
Anyway, "African Cats" unfolds on the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, where the filmmakers seemingly trailed a pride of lions and a coalition of cheetahs. Beyond identifying the reserve and providing comically dubious "where are they now?" end titles for the characters, directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey do not contextualize the footage, who named the animals, or other matter-of-fact details. They focus instead on constructing a story for maximum "oohs" and "awws" -- understandable given the clear attempt to reach a family audience.
That story focuses on lion cub Layla getting steadily schooled in "the circle of life" (by film's end, new cubs have arrived), cheetah "single mother" Sita raising a litter of five, and savanna "king" Fang ruling the pride with tough but regal authority. Kids would doubtlessly learn more watching basic cable, but the spectacle is what it is, and the big screen adds majesty to it, enhanced by IMAX-style helicopter shots and bigger-than-life slo-mo of "the fastest creature on land -- a cheetah."
Even with the extra help the "true-life adventure" gets in the story department (including from "The Lion King" producer Don Hahn, here an executive producer and narration editor), the wee ones at a recent screening were chatty and restless, signaling that "African Cats" will play best to middle schoolers and precocious elementary students. The narration mentions predatory practice, and death when it comes, but the visuals are not graphic (we see the cats make tackles, but never tear into flesh).
"African Cats" may not be as egregious as "March of the Penguins" in viewing and articulating animal nature through a human filter, but gradually the approach wears, as Jackson describes how the "determined" or "terrified" creatures "comfort," "appreciate," "can't wait to show off" or show "desperate hope," "confidence" or "extraordinary courage" as the cubs navigate their "huge adventure" on the way to becoming "young adults."
By the end, you'd be forgiven for worrying less about the heroes surviving in the wild and more about how these cats will fare in a dog-eat-dog job market.