A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this visually arresting nature documentary portrays how one mother lioness in Botswana attempts to keep her cubs alive in perilous territory. As in many wildlife films, there are some disturbing sequences in which lions (or their prey) are chased, attacked, and, in some cases, killed. The cameras never focus too closely on the blood or gore, but viewers definitely see the carcass of a lion's kill being scavenged by hyenas. Defenseless cubs are injured, swallowed, lost, and (possible spoiler alert), in one heartbreaking scene that could upset younger kids, intentionally left behind. Although this is an educational documentary, the occasional violent scenes involving the lioness and her cubs may prove too upsetting for younger elementary schoolers.
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What's the story?
In THE LAST LIONS, husband-and-wife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert -- who are veteran National Geographic wildlife photographers and conservationists -- turn their eyes to the lions of Botswana's Okavango Delta. But instead of making an epic survey of lions in general -- the movie begins with Jeremy Irons' dramatic narration explaining that although there were more than 450,000 lions a scant 50 years ago, there are now fewer than 20,000 -- the Jouberts focus on just one family of big cats. Early in the film, the lion is severely injured by an encroaching pride, and the lioness must flee with her three cubs from the pride's territorial alphas. Called Ma Di Tau ("Mother of Lions"), she escapes to Duba Island, loses a cub in the process, and struggles to survive against a herd of invading buffalo and the threat of a vengeful lioness out to erase her bloodline.
Is it any good?
The Jouberts have a beautiful style, and it's easy to fall for their lyrical visuals of a lioness' life on the Delta. They obviously love their subject matter, and they make the wetlands come alive. It's always amazing when a nature documentary can be as suspenseful as a fictional thriller, but since Ma Di Tau's story deals with universal matters of motherhood, life, and death, it's not all that surprising that audiences will find themselves biting their nails and possibly even crying during certain heartbreaking scenes. Many shots are so perfect that they seem almost staged -- but of course, that's impossible considering that the cast is carnivorous animals, not Hollywood actors or computer-generated creatures.
Some of what makes the movie so memorable also makes it difficult to watch. This isn't the typical "isn't nature beautiful and wonderful" tale. Irons' melodramatic narration anthropomorphises Ma Di Tau's quest for survival to an off-putting degree -- no, Jeremy, we will never comprehend animal "grief," just as we can never comprehend how a mother could leave behind her dying baby. And Ma Di Tau's suffering is inconsolably never-ending, even if it's also the way of the wild. At the end, we feel a glimmer of hope that we should be doing something, anything to help the African cats, even if the Jouberts don't spell out exactly how we can help -- other than text $10 to a charity. Still, it's important to know that the King of the Jungle could be permanently dethroned quite soon if we don't intervene.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the proverbial circle of life. How did the lioness' trials and losses affect you? Was it too upsetting to see animals -- at times cubs -- turn up missing or killed?
Did the narration over-dramatize the action? Is it OK to assume that wild animals have human-like traits and emotions?
Talk about the movie's overwhelming call to action to help save the lions of Africa. Why is it so important? Is it clear after watching the movie how people can help?
- In theaters: February 18, 2011
- On DVD or streaming: January 3, 2012
- Cast: Jeremy Irons
- Directors: Beverly Joubert, Dereck Joubert
- Studio: National Geographic
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Science and Nature, Wild Animals
- Run time: 88 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: some violent images involving animal life.
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