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Disneynature's African Cats Blu-ray + DVD Review

Disneynature's African Cats (2011) movie poster African Cats

Theatrical Release Date: April 22, 2011 / Running Time: 89 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Keith Scholey, Alastair Fothergill / Writers: Keith Scholey (narration & original story), John Truby (narration), Owen Newman (original story) / Producers: Keith Scholey, Alix Tidmarsh

Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson

Buy African Cats from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD in Blu-ray Case DVD + Blu-ray in DVD Case Instant Video

Disneynature has revealed itself to be a series of diminishing returns. The line of annual nature documentaries looks out of place in the current Disney company plan, which has shunned smaller films in favor of really big ones.
Sure, it can be called a franchise, but not one that lends itself to toys, T-shirts, and Halloween costumes.

There seem to be two substantial explanations for the brand's survival past Miramax's sale and non-family entertainment's outsourcing to DreamWorks Pictures. First, there is tradition. Disneynature was one of the last things spearheaded by Roy E. Disney, who envisioned it as a callback to his uncle Walt's decorated True-Life Adventures of the 1950s. Secondly, there is the PR value. Commercial prospects for documentaries are almost always limited, even with the wide distribution and major marketing campaigns afforded Disneynature releases. On these films, the gains in public image on the ever fashionable subjects of ecology and environmentalism surely exceed the box office grosses. Disney has further managed to intertwine business and responsibility by vocally donating a portion of opening week ticket sales to a relevant cause; planting trees in Brazil for Earth and preserving coral reef in the Bahamas for Oceans.

This year's Disneynature flick, African Cats, saw the company protecting more than 50,000 acres of land in the Ambroseli Wildlife Corridor of Kenya. With that, the world benefits in a way that it did not off the studio's other underperforming titles of 2011, like Mars Needs Moms and DreamWorks' Fright Night.

These four lions may look majestic and nice, but context and Sam Jackson narration actually establishes them as the power-hungry villains of Disneynature's "African Cats." Awwww! Look at the baby cheetahs!

Having offered sweeping surveys of life on land (Earth) and in the sea (Oceans), Disneynature's third worldwide theatrical release narrows its focus to just a few species calling the African savanna home. As the title implies, felines are the chief interest; the movie primarily dramatizes the existence of lions and a cheetah family. Narrator Samuel L. Jackson takes the series' usual personification efforts to new heights, giving the family members names and backstories. How much of what is shared is real is left in question, but there is no doubt that the nature footage is authentic and the lifelines documented align with what research has established as typical family dynamics of wildcats.

The elder lions have seen better days. The dominant male is named Fang, for the large tooth that has been damaged and now often flaps just outside his gum. One of his women, Layla, is infirmed and in danger of being left behind by her pride. Meanwhile, the group, which includes focal young adult daughter Mara, is targeted by Kali and his three sons, who collectively channel Scar with their thirst for power.

The cheetahs, meanwhile, are a mother named Sita and her five newborn cubs. Hyenas scale that brood back to three and they are just one of many threats the region poses to them. Others include lions, who face off in a strategic battle of strength versus speed. Per the whole circle of life thing, Sita not only has to protect and nurture her children, but also train them to hunt. Per the G rating and Disneynature tradition, kills remain bloodless and largely off-camera. Still, the unrelenting realities of nature can upset some young viewers.

The rest of us should marvel at the exquisite footage of these photogenic predators. Unlike its two predecessors, African Cats does not recycle any shots from BBC documentary series. This film boasts all-original material from its two British directors, "Nova", Discovery Channel veteran Keith Scholey and "Planet Earth"/Earth's Alastair Fothergill. From charming close views of cubs playing to dramatic slow motion looks at hunts where every step counts, the photography is spectacular and obviously the movie's main draw. It'd be a big enough draw to attract nature buffs and animal lovers, but the characters and story offered, however much truth there is to them, make it easier to invest emotionally as you would in a standard narrative feature film.

Aging lion patriarch Fang earns his name with a pitiful flapping lower canine tooth. Lion vs. crocodile might sound like the foundation of a Roger Corman Syfy original movie, but it's just a real-life scenario that plays out in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve.

The design does start to wear thin eventually, leading you to suspect that IMAX's standard 40 minutes might have been a better fit for this than the 89-minute runtime we actually get. Somewhere in between probably would have been best, to grant the perilous setting maximum impact and not allow viewer interest to flag.

Though it falls a little short on those fronts, African Cats still feels like a greater achievement than both Earth and Oceans, even overlooking their content refashioning.
Cats doesn't have the variety or breadth of those forebears, but it has more power and meaning than simply stringing together the best few minutes from countless hours shot of dozens of distinctive species. Like last year's direct-to-video Disneynature Crimson Wing documentary on flamingos, this movie is closer to those old True-Life Adventures and can be more easily regarded and remembered as a feature film, with a beginning, an end, and an approach more specific than the scattershot slice-of-planet tact previously taken.

Cats' biggest misjudgment is a minor one, in which the animals featured in the film (and, despite the narrow focus, there are plenty) are assigned production credits alongside the real closing scroll based on their characteristics. It's a feeble joke extended for over four minutes, as words are carefully chosen and arranged ("tawny eagle...aerial unit", "cape buffalo...lion producers", "cattle egret... heron make up", etc.) in anticipation of the payoff of recurring audience laughter. The wordplay and puns seem squarely aimed at kids, but rely on knowledge of real filmmaking credits they most certainly won't have. It conjures an image of a square family chuckling along and causes the film to close on a goofy note unbefitting of its potent imagery and themes. Of course, if Walt had done something like that in the 1950s, it'd have us smiling today. If anybody is still watching African Cats fifty years from now, maybe they'll get a kick out of it and assume (quite accurately, perhaps) that people in 2011 were more easily amused than they.

African Cats hit stores earlier this month cleverly in tandem with The Lion King. Cats noteworthy for being seemingly the first new Disney film available exclusively as a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack. You can find it in DVD packaging called a DVD + Blu-ray and in Blu-ray packaging as a Blu-ray + DVD, but either way, you're getting the same two discs at the same $39.99 list price. I imagine some customers will be put off by that, those who are familiar with and fond of standalone DVDs priced under $20 on release week. Disney must be willing to accept some dissatisfaction and some decisions to rent rather than buy if it means getting a Blu-ray disc in a household that has resisted the format and potentially starting a Disney Blu-ray collection. Who can say whether that is a wise bet; customers have been given a bevy of reasons to upgrade to Blu-ray and yet the hi-def format's market share in revenue -- which higher pricing and selective counting, i.e. combo packs as Blu-rays, gives it a slight advantage on -- has lingered around just 20% this year (closer to 30% in recent weeks).

The new Pirates of the Caribbean movie debuts on disc this week week exclusively as a combo pack and will be available a month later as a DVD-only release. There are no similar plans at this time for a release of African Cats on DVD alone and there might never be for a movie that's not expected to sell millions of units.

Disneynature's African Cats: Blu-ray + DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
DVD Closed Captioned; Featurettes Subtitled
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Foil/Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in DVD packaging ($39.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

You expect the utmost of quality from a movie like African Cats and the dazzling Blu-ray delivers it in spades. The first-rate nature footage is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with nary a concern. Regardless of filming challenges, the picture always remains clear and clean, with the footage boasting extraordinary detail. Moving herds of hundreds of animals yield no compression artifacts and all of the scenes are shot in daylight, avoiding the grain of nightvision footage. A few rare shots were less sharp than others, but the entirety is a feast for the eyes whose gains over standard definition are appreciated.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio isn't any less of a delight. Back in the days of the True-Life Adventures, sound wasn't recorded with the picture; their soundtracks were basically an exercise in realistic fakery. Things are much different now and we not only get to hear the actual noises emitted from the beasts, but with weight and clarity that makes us feel right there next to them. The score by Nicholas Hooper can't do justice to the powerhouse visuals (especially with Hans Zimmer's glorious Lion King score fresh in mind), but it is nicely dispersed and an adequate complement to the plentiful roars, yelps, and raindrops that tastefully emanate from all directions.

The DVD's transfer is exemplary by that format's standards. Its clean picture and strong sound should satisfy most viewers.

The video shorts of Filmmaker Annotations mode show us how "African Cats" was made. Check out The Walt Disney Company being all environmentally responsible to turtles in "Disney & Nature."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Disneynature films are always accompanied by a few standard bonus features. First up are the Blu-ray-exclusive filmmaker annotations, a picture-in-picture video commentary that has animal and film text facts and crew interview clips play over the movie. It also gives you opportunity to watch twelve short videos (each running 2-10 minutes, with most between 4 and 6) on topics like finding the animals, creating the score, and the filmmakers' camp. You get a 30-second countdown to decide whether or not you'd like to watch something on that topic.
For some reason, fast-forwarding, rewinding, subtitles, and timecode functions are disabled in this mode, but you can use chapter skip to jump to the start of the 30-second countdown before each new video. It's good material that doesn't gain much from the presentation. There's really no reason the content couldn't have been provided on DVD in basic audio commentary and video short form; it's not like the PiP talking head video adds anything special.

"Disney & Nature" (3:38) touts the environmental efforts of Disney's Animal Kingdom and other programs. This tacky company promo felt like an abbreviated version of a similar item included on Oceans.

"Save the Savanna" (4:42) opens with a discussion of the movie, but soon moves to promoting Disney's donation to protecting national parks for the wild animals of East Africa who need them.

Jordin Sparks follows this fairy and sings to it in her "The World I Knew" music video. The DVD's golden main menu is quite comparable to the Blu-ray's only menu.

Finally, included on the Blu-ray and inexcusably left off the DVD is the music video for "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks' decent end credits theme "The World I Knew" (4:24). Both the song and Sparks' original material in the video (featuring fairies, moonlight and waterfalls) seem better suited for a Tinker Bell movie, but the lion footage frequently interspersed makes a case for the actual destination.

Both discs load with ads for Disney Studio All Access, Disneynature's Chimpanzee, and The Lion King. The menus' Sneak Peeks listings repeat those, followed by second string promos for Disney Movie Rewards, The Lion King musical, Disney Parks, Tinker Bell and the Pixie Hollow Games, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Cars 2, Treasure Buddies, and Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition. The DVD also adds a trailer for the DVD-only release Prep & Landing to the mix.

The Blu-ray's extras are all presented in hi-def. Like all the recent Disney Blu-rays I've seen, the disc doesn't support bookmarks or resume playback, but it remembers where you left off.

The only/main menu plays sun-kissed clips while the sidebar listings appear against a different video montage backdrop. DVD only allows you to admire the screen so long before automatically starting playback.

My review copy was the version packaged like a Blu-ray; its side-snapped blue case holds ads and Disney Movie Rewards booklets. It's topped by an embossed cardboard slipcover whose foil border coolly resembles a lion's fur in appearance (but not feel).

Sita the cheetah gives a winning sunset pose in one of the closing shots of Disneynature's "African Cats."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

African Cats narrows its focus from previous Disneynature surveys and benefits for it, presenting stunning footage of the fascinating wild with compelling characters and stories. That design may peeve those wanting a pure nature documentary, but it makes the film more palatable and memorable for the general film-viewing public.

The Blu-ray provides a knockout feature presentation but a pretty weak slate of extras. The annotation videos would be better enjoyed as standard featurettes and the rest of the video is promotional fluff, of which the DVD includes the weakest. Still, the movie and its presentation are worthwhile enough to recommend a viewing.

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Related Reviews:
Disneynature: Earth Oceans The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos | True-Life Adventures: The African Lion
New Blu-ray + DVD Combos: The Lion King Zookeeper Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (40th Anniversary UCE) Dumbo
Africa: Cheetah A Far Off Place Tarzan Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa In a Better World
Wild Animals: Dinosaur The Jungle Book Brother Bear Sing Along Songs: Flik's Musical Adventure at Disney's Animal Kingdom

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Reviewed October 16, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2011 Disneynature and Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.