Film Friday: ‘African Cats’ and ‘Water for Elephants’

by W. Andrew Powell

A scene from Disneynature's film African Cats

A scene from Disneynature's film African Cats

Opening this week in a theatre near you: Disneynature’s latest animal documentary, African Cats, opens just in time for Earth Day; Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson star in the romantic drama, Water for Elephants; plus a look at Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family.

African Cats
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey

Earth Day is here once again, and what better way to celebrate the beauty of the planet than with another of Disneynature’s animal documentaries, this time looking at what they call the “kings of the savanna”.

Looking in on the lives of cheetahs and lions, African Cats is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and gives each of the animals names and a story. There’s Mara, the lion cub who is trying to emulate her mother’s strength; Sita, the cheetah, the mother of five spirited babies; and Fang, the leader of a pride who is also protecting his family from a banished lion.

Directed by Alastair Fothergill, who also directed Earth, and Keith Scholey, African Cats is meant to show the real lives of these proud animals with a bit of humour and creative storytelling. Featuring beautiful cinematography, the film was shot on location in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, but it’s worth noting that while it doesn’t feature gruesome imagery, it is a somewhat honest portrayal of the hardships of life on the savanna.

Reviews of the film have been mostly positive, although there are some critics who have complained about the movie’s superficiality.

Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter called African Cats, “A story-driven wildlife doc where creatures become characters with names so young audiences can appreciate the natural cycles of life — and death — in the animal world.”

While Andrew Barker of Variety wrote, “Astounding wildlife footage is given a kid-friendly narrative hook, but never overly cuddlified, in Keith Scholey’s African Cats.”

On the flip side, Adam Nayman of Toronto’s Eye Weekly commented, “That African Cats baldly assigns human personality traits to its feline stars is no surprise; what’s shocking is that a nature documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson could be so bland.”

Water for Elephants
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, James Frain, Paul Schneider, Ken Foree, Hal Holbrook
Director: Francis Lawrence

Sara Gruen’s bestseller gets the big screen treatment by I Am Legend’s director Francis Lawrence in this story about two people who fall in love under the big top.

Set during the Great Depression, the film looks back on the youth of Jacob, a veterinary student played by Robert Pattinson, who finds himself thrown into work with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus where he is put in charge of the menagerie of animals.

Retold partly through by a much older Jacob, played by Hal Holbrook, the younger Jacob finds himself falling for the beautiful equestrian star Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who is unfortunately married to the wild and somewhat wicked animal trainer, August (Christoph Waltz).

Jacob and Marlena fall in love, of course, but they will have to deal with the very dangerous August if they are ever going to be happy.

Although the book has many fans and followers, the film has not earned high praise from many critics and was sitting at 48% on David Germain of the Associated Press called Witherspoon and Pattinson ” a three-ring snooze-fest” that bring “little passion to a love story supposedly so fiery, it blows the roof off the big top.”

There are a number of critics who liked Water for Elephants though, including Roger Ebert. He wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “In an age of prefabricated special effects and obviously phony spectacle, it’s sort of old-fashioned (and a pleasure) to see a movie made of real people and plausible sets.”

Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family
Starring: Tyler Perry, Bow Wow, Lauren London, Loretta Devine, David Mann, Tamela Mann, Cassi Davis, Shannon Kane
Director: Tyler Perry

Finally this week, there’s Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family.

Once again, Tyler Perry directs and stars as Madea, the fierce and lovable motherly type who this time is trying to help out her niece, Shirley, played by Loretta Devine. When Shirley receives bad news from the doctor, she tries to get her three children together to tell them, but each of them has their own problems and can’t seem to come together to listen to what their mother has to tell them.

That’s where Madea and Aunt Bam, played by Cassi Davis, come into the story — bringing the family together to support Shirley, even as a family secret is about to be revealed.

While there are not a lot of reviews for Perry’s latest film, there are a few critics who have come out supporting the film, including Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel. Moore wrote, “If he’s moving on from Madea, and For Colored girls and his next couple of announced projects suggest he is, at least Perry’s doing right by the old broad, letting her bow out like one big, wise-cracking mother of a momma.”

But, as with a lot of Perry’s other work, there are those who are not fans of the director’s style. Katey Rich of wrote, “Artistic growth is nothing compared to pleasing his built-in audience with the same sap and slapstick they’ve paid for nine times before.”

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