The Last Lions, in movie theaters in February, is a thriller more than it is a eco-doc.
The human element, and the conservation imperative, is hardly mentioned. Framing the drama of Ma di Tau (Mother of Lions), our hero, as she tries to salvage the blood line of her fallen mate and save her cubs, are visions of the Earth being swallowed by the lights of cities. A voiceover Jeremy Irons tells us that the Earth will hold 7 billion humans by the end of 2011, while the population of wild lions has dropped from the nearly half a million to as few as 20,000 in just 50 years. Other than that, there's no story told about why lions numbers have dropped so precipitously or what we can do about it, short of checking out causeanuproar.org and trusting the National Geographic Society to take care of it with a $10 text of the word LIONS to #50555.
That said, the movie holds up as a thriller. The characters are so iconic it's almost unbelievable: A handsome couple split and run out of their home by a terrifying pride led by a one-eyed lioness named Silver Eye; Ma di Tau's squeaky cubs haplessly facing one threat after another; and the deeply scarred bull leading a herd of menacing buffalo against her.
The story has all the elements of fiction: Tragedy and loss, perseverance and triumph. And those characters, being wild, never submit to easy good-and-evil charactures that they might if this was fiction, or told by less sophisticated storytellers. The score by Alex Wurman keeps your heart thumping.
And it's beautiful, but it's also brutal. For every draw-dropping shot of the Botswana landscape or rolling thunderstorm over the Okavango Delta, there's something gut-wrenching: A cub left for dead, a male in his prime dying, flesh being ripped from a buffalo during an aborted hunt. I heard one woman say, as I left the screening, "I'm sorry I had to leave, but you know me; I can't even watch ASPCA commercials." I don't know her, but I do know what she's talking about. Be prepared: Animals are harmed during the making of this movie.
The high definition footage leaves nothing to the imagination, and it is itself a marvel. We may have become accustomed to top-notch videography during the Planet Earth series, but you'll find there's plenty of awe left in reserve for this. Filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert splice together cuts and play with color in a way that makes it seem as if time has been compressed, but that the action is nonetheless true to life.
It's rated PG, and I think many kids would benefit from the guidance of a parent on this one. Enjoy.
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