'African Cats' is striking but heavy-handed

'African Cats' is striking but heavy-handed

The first two documentaries from Disney's Disneynature label — 2009's "Earth" and last year's "Oceans" — were a stunning combination of vast, sprawling images and intimate, detailed moments. They provided high tension but also tugged at your heart and offered some laughs in between.

The latest in the series, "African Cats," which is opening on Earth Day like its predecessors, has all the impressive visuals but far less story. Shot over more than two years in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya by directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill, the film bills itself as a real-life version of "The Lion King." No one bursts into song here but Samuel L. Jackson, as the narrator, does talk. A lot.

And that's the movie's major weakness. The images — and the animals' dramatic interactions — should speak for themselves. Jackson's narration is constant and overwhelming. It spells out instincts that should be obvious and assigns human characteristics in a way that's obnoxious.

The film follows two families living on either side of a river. One is a pride of lions ruled by the fearsome Fang. At one point, Fang roars and snarls and gets a threatening crocodile to back down. Reading from the script, Jackson tells us: "Today, the pride's protector has earned his keep." Or he'll inform us that a female lion cub, Mara, possesses the fighting spirit of her mother, Layla. How could we possibly know this?

Ostensibly, the narration is meant to make the film as accessible as possible to younger viewers, at whom much of the material is aimed; this was true to a far less cloying extent in "Earth" and "Oceans." But "African Cats" can also be super violent, despite its G-rating, as it depicts the ins and outs of hunting rituals; at one point, several lionesses tear apart a zebra carcass, leaving their soft, furry faces bloodied. This was enough to send some parents and kids out of the theater at a recent screening.

But there's also an extremely high cute factor. On the other side of the river from the lions is a cheetah — named Sita — with her five impossibly adorable and cuddly newborn cubs. The filmmakers provide such beautifully personal moments between the mother and her babies, they'll make you wonder how they got so close.

But of course, because this is the wild, danger is constantly lurking. If we couldn't figure this out for ourselves, Jackson is there to remind us. Repeatedly. And far too often, "African Cats" feels episodic in its structure. Rather than featuring a driving, compelling narrative, it's: cheetah vs. gazelle. And then: hyena vs. cheetah. And then: lion vs. crocodile. Who will win???

And it absolutely should depict the harsh realities these animals face as they struggle to survive. But anthropomorphizing the creatures as good guys and bad guys to such a degree, to make "African Cats" palatable for the whole family, doesn't tell the whole story. And that is: Everybody's gotta eat.

"African Cats," a Disneynature release, is rated G. Running time: 89 minutes. Two stars out of four.