The Last Lions
I get pretty excited about animal documentaries. If they’re good that is. I can’t describe how crestfallen I was after I saw Disney Nature’s Earth opening weekend. What a fluffy waste of time. So when The Last Lions started generating quite a lot of buzz as a serious portrait of lions, I got my hopes up. Lions is nothing like Earth, it’s thrilling, and terrifying. It’s difficult to watch, extremely sad in parts, and life-affirming in others. It’s definitely a documentary you should make the opportunity to see.
The name is accurate. This is the story of some of the last lions in the world. Although few and far between, there were some statistics thrown around in the film. Around fifty years ago, lions numbered somewhere around 450,000. Today, there may be as few 20,000 in the wild. Fittingly so, Lions centers around a lioness, named Ma di Tau (“mother of lions” in Setswana, a language of Botswana). She and her mate, as large as the name beast infers, are attacked by a larger pride of displaced lions, moving in on Ma di Tau’s territory. This initial battle between the two felt as real as any drama on screen has ever felt. As luck would have it, Ma di Tau loses. And she flees with her three cubs into a swamp south where she hopes the invading pride won’t follow. We get to, or rather are forced, to watch as Ma di Tau’s mate’s wounds suck the life out of him until his enormous head hits the ground with a thud and his labored breathing stops.
We begin to see Ma di Tau try and make a life for her cubs, but it’s not easy. Just crossing the river to her new home gives up a cub to a hungry crocodile. Hunting in a new marshy home is not something these lions are used to. Fortunately, the filmmakers have the intensely solemn voice of Jeremy Irons to narrate the lions’ actions, their thoughts, and emotions. Yes, it’s clear a decision was made not to bring in experts with monotonous voices explaining the withering statistics of the giant cats, there’s no emotionally invested bleeding hearts. This method was alternately effective, and irritatingly grating. Irons’ voice seems incredibly unnatural in a world that seems otherwise untouched by humans. His presence, even off-screen, reminded me even more that just feet from the drama unfolding on the Okavango Delta in Botswana, there are filmmakers, Jeeps, and other invasions.
More invasive than Irons narration that forces the incredibly drama into a fictional story, wrapped up into a tidy box, is the omniscient nature of it. There were points in Ma di Tau’s story where the narration claimed to know exactly what she was thinking, what she was feeling–at one point, the audience is even treated to the exact flashback Ma di Tau was supposed to be experiencing. I understand the purpose of ridiculously dramatizing this story, as I was fighting back tears, and the credits got me to text a $10 donation to the Big Cats Initiative. But at the same time, it’s a disservice, to an otherwise nearly flawless film. A similarly exploitive scene involves focusing much too long on a fatally wounded cub as her mother mourns. It succeeded in what it attempted to do, but it’s shamelessly cruel to audience.
Beyond these complaints, The Last Lions is stunningly beautiful. It’s as effective a documentary concerning animals as I’ve seen. The cinematography is remarkable, you can almost smell the splashes, and the brush fires, the kill that the hyenas steal from Ma di Tau. Of course, there’s a bit of an overbearing score at times, but this is definitely a film worth seeing.