If you want to see lions in all their raging glory, lions are what you'll get in The Last Lions, a new National Geographic film that features awesome shots of the giant felines in Botswana. But this film is a nature documentary of the kind we associate with Wild Kingdom and can still see on Animal Planet. To those who—thanks to the Full Frame doc fest in Durham and the sophisticated nonfiction fare that plays in local theaters—expect more substance, The Last Lions will seem old-fashioned.
We're right to be skeptical—there are documented cases of nature photographers fabricating scenes for the camera. Our suspicions are only enhanced in The Last Lions by filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert's insistence on giving their lioness a Joseph Campbell-like heroic predicament: Cast out of her home territory by a pride of hostile lions, the heroine is forced into an unfamiliar wilderness to hunt and to protect her three cubs.
The filmmakers have named their heroine "Ma di Tau" ("Mother of Lions" in the Sotho-Tswana language group), and under the terms of the epic template they've chosen, Ma di Tau must have a nemesis. This comes in the form of a rival lioness that doesn't get the courtesy of a mellifluous moniker. Instead, she's "Silver Eye," so named because Ma di Tau destroys her eye in a fight early in the film.
Still, if one can ignore the aggressively anthropomorphic storytelling—narrated by a bored-sounding Jeremy Irons in rent-an-accent mode—the footage is never less than astounding. Today's camera technology exists at a level of sophistication that Wild Kingdom's Marlin Perkins could scarcely have dreamed of, and the Jouberts take full advantage. The level of their coverage is so thorough that they're able to stitch together a convincing narrative of Ma di Tau's struggles, with most major events well documented. We see the fight that forces Ma di Tau to flee—a terrifying nighttime attack captured with a night lens. We see her desperate flight across crocodile-infested water with her three cubs swimming behind. Once she finds a watery island to call her own she sets to work trying to hunt the local water buffalo population by herself. But the water buffalo are beasts in their own right and don't go down easily—as we know from popular YouTube clips. Further complicating matters for Ma di Tau, punkish local hyenas lurk about, ready to steal her kill. The light is stunning; much of the film seems to have been shot at the dusk and dawn magic hours.
What is regrettable, though, is that the crisis the film is designed to raise awareness of, the declining numbers of lions, is underexplored (the population is down from half a million to about 20,000). Encroaching humanity is the principal culprit, but human settlements are only mentioned once in passing in the film. It should be clear—but it's not—that the lions are battling over shrinking habitat.
But habitat protection in Africa is a fraught issue—Africans could be forgiven for wondering if the Westerners who send their money to wildlife organizations have a similar level of concern for the humans who live on the continent. At any rate, the first thing you see at the end of The Last Lions, before any other credits roll, is a number you can dial into your phone to pledge your contribution to save the big cats.