Monday, November 21, 2011

African Cats Blu-ray Review

African Cats takes viewers deep into the breathtaking African savanna to witness the heart-stopping rivalry between two lion prides and the epic journey of one brave cheetah family. Shot over the course of two and a half years using state-of-the-art camera equipment, African Cats captures the awe-inspiring beauty of one of the wildest places on Earth as it tells the dramatic and often intimate stories of Mara, an endearing lion cub who strives to grow up with her mother’s strength, spirit and wisdom; Sita, a fearless cheetah and single mother of five mischievous newborns; and Fang, a proud leader of the pride who must defend his family from a rival lion clan.

Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

African Cats follows two animal families in the Masai Mara that have been filmed over the course of several years.  One of the families focused on is a pride of lions that’s most experienced hunter is the female lion named Layla who has a young lioness named Mara.  The father of Mara and the protector of the pride is a weathered old lion named Fang.  Fang has seen better days and has earned his nickname because one of his teeth was split down the middle so half of it just droops out of his mouth.  While brave against crocodiles, we soon learn that Fang isn’t the bravest of fellows when the odds aren’t in his favor.  Layla herself is in bad shape because of her age and the toll it takes on her body every time she hunts for food for the pride.

Across the river to the north, a cheetah family is also trying to survive.  The mother of five cheetah cubs, Sita does her best to protect and feed them despite the constant danger from other predators around her.  Sita doesn’t have much time to teach her cubs how to survive in the wild but the lessons start right away.  Unfortunately for Sita, there’s another pride of lions within her vicinity led by a lion named Kali whose four sons and him have formed the equivalent of a motorcycle gang in the wild.  They are without a doubt the villains of the movie, since their constant desire for territory and female lions drives them to terrorize pretty much every other animal around them.

When Kali and his gang see Sita and her cubs, Sita knows that the only way to save her cubs is to goad the lions herself to distract them away from her cubs.  She plays a dangerous game of calling them out and getting close to them until they finally chase her.  Cheetahs are built for speed but the don’t have much endurance, but Sita outlasts Kali and then one of his sons long enough for them to give up.  Going back to try to find her scattered cubs, Sita discovers that she can only find three out of the five since either the lions or more likely the aggressive hyenas got the missing two.  They hyenas prove to be a constant threat as they continually try to separate Sita from her cubs by attacking them from different points as a team.  Outnumbered, Sita runs to and fro to keep her family safe as she chases off the hyenas until they finally give up.

Sita and her cubs were only a distraction for Kali since his main obsession is the territory south of the river that is ruled by Fang his arch-enemy.  Kali and his gang would have attacked Fang long ago but the crocodile filled river between them is too full to attempt to cross it.  Kali has to wait until the weather changes for the river to dry up before he can venture across.  Across the river, Layla is injured again after being kicked by a zebra.  Now limping and in pain, she has a hard time keeping up with the pride as they follow the migration of the wildebeests.  Her daughter Mara is forced to choose between staying with her injured mother or to continue on with the pride and she chooses her mother.  Mother and daughter soon lose sight of the pride but Layla forces herself to continue on for her daughter’s sake and they eventually catch up with the pride.

Back in the northern region, Sita now has a new threat…there’s three male cheetahs that have no problem with killing and eating their own kind.  Unlike the lions from before, these cheetahs are now just as fast as Sita, which makes them a lot more dangerous.  Using the same tactics as before, Sita tries to keep the attention on her to save her cubs but that fails this time and the cubs are trapped by the cheetahs.  The three cubs bravely growl and hiss and the older cheetahs and they are soon saved by an unlikely source…an elephant who apparently doesn’t like bullies and chases them away.

Soon enough, the river drains away and Kali and one of his sons cross the riverbed in an attempt to take over the southern region and they soon catch up to Fang and his pride.  Faced with two opponents, Fang shows his true colors and runs away to leave his pride to fend for themselves.  The female lions know that their cubs are in mortal danger, and the injured Layla bravely leads an attack on Fang on his sons.  Layla and the other female lions manage to drive off Kali and his son but the fight has made injured Layla even more.  Fang has the nerve to return to the pride with no repercussions from the females over his cowardly behavior surprisingly enough.  Layla knows that she doesn’t have much longer to live so she reconnects with her sister Malaika who accepts Mara as one of her own cubs.  Knowing that Mara will be taken care of, Layla limps away from the pride to find a quiet place to die.

It’s not long before Kali returns with all of his sons, having learned his lesson  from the previous attack.  Fang, once again proves to be a coward and he runs off again never to be seen again.  With Fang out of the picture and Layla not there to lead a defense, the pride is finally subjugated.  The cubs are run off by Kali and his sons as they assume command of the pride.  Mara will now have to learn to take care of herself now that she is alone and doesn’t have her mother to help her.  Life also continues on for Sita and her young cheetahs and she tries to teach them the last lessons they will need to learn to survive on their own.  The cycle continues on as they wildebeests return, the river fills up again, and the young animals move into adulthood to have children of their own.

I’ve liked all of the DisneyNature films since they are all beautifully filmed and always have a good story to tell.  Even the old Disney nature films in the past were all interesting and groundbreaking at the time and these new ones are no different.  The footage that they managed to capture is amazing and we see just how similar these animals are to humans in their interactions.  Their love for their children, the playfulness of the young, and the sense of community are very human-like as is the concepts of love, greed, fear, and sacrifice that we also see.  This being Disney, the filmmakers don’t dwell on the kills that occur but don’t whitewash it either.  We see the gazelles or wildebeests brought down but there’s no gratuitous shot of it being killed or eaten.  My three year old son enjoyed the movie and wasn’t really scared by any of it and he came away with a greater understanding and appreciation of lions and cheetahs, which is probably one of the reasons Disney makes these kind of movies.

Video (5 out of 5 stars)

This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks gorgeous in all of its jaw-dropping detail.  You will see every single tuft of fur, every blade of grass, and even every whisker in exquisite detail.  For a film shot in the wilds of Africa from a distance away from its subjects, the final result is simply amazing.  Colors are also beautiful to see from the green grass to the arid plains, this always looks realistic and natural.  The few night scenes that are included do have a small issue with noise but it’s brief and not too distracting.  Considering the conditions and restrictions placed on the filmmakers for this movie, this picture quality is far better than it has any right to be.  This is another fantastic job by Disney!

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

African Cats’ DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also doesn’t disappoint as it successfully captures life in the wild.  From the lions roars, to Sita’s desperate calls to her missing cubs, and the weather and other elements making their presence known, this mix sounds great.  I really don’t know how they captures all of these sounds from a distance but they did and it sounds awesome!  This lossless mix also uses all of the channels as well which is a little surprising for a nature film.  With narrator Samuel L. Jackson’s authoritative voice taking up the front channels, the music by Nicolas Hooper and the rest of the sounds are distributed across the rest of the channels.  While the directional panning isn’t as strong as it would be for a Hollywood blockbuster release, for a movie in the wild this is still pretty effective.  Whether it’s the cries of the cubs from every direction, or a thunderstorm, or the migration of the wildebeests, there’s a nice directionality that is still conveyed.  This is an excellent lossless track!

Special Features (3 out of 5 stars)

This is the weakest section of the disc since there isn’t a lot to be found as far as extras go.  The good news is that what is here is in high definition.

  • Filmmaker Annotations –  The best extra on the disc is the well done Picture-in-Picture “Annotations” option which includes comments from the filmmakers and the guys who had to film and record these scenes.  There is also some optional clips, trivia and interesting facts, and more.  If you’d like to select this option, you will need to select it after clicking on  ”Play” from the main menu.

  • Disney & Nature – A look at Disney’s conservation projects and efforts.  They have been trying to raise awareness about the environment through their many different outlets and parks.

  • Save the Savannah – A short look at the fund-raising efforts associated with African Cats to raise funds to preserve the wildlife corridor that they animals journey across during their migrations.

  • Music Video – A music video from Jordan Sparks called  ”The World I Knew”  which is the theme song for the movie.

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

African Cats is a very effective movie that not only educates us on how these magnificent animals live and die, but also how their world is shrinking because of the encroachment of mankind.  Seeing these animals react in very human ways when faced by danger or how they protect each other and their young was very eye-opening.  Filled with beautiful shots and sounds that have been presented incredibly well on this Blu-ray, this is an experience with nature that you won’t soon forget.

Order your copy today!

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