Make no mistake: African Cats is a film. What its cameras capture is every bit as real as anything you'd see in a more traditionally structured documentary, but African Cats brings it together in a more cinematic context. The narration -- fielded by Samuel L. Jackson -- doesn't dryly recite facts about cheetahs and lions. It instead makes it a point to humanize these creatures...to emphasize the familial bonds...the drives and emotions that motivate them. It's handled in a way that's tasteful and respectful, and they do convincingly come across as characters rather than just animals. I'll admit to being surprised by how deeply I escaped into their stories. Much like a movie, there are heroes. There are overarching villains. There's no shortage of drama...of life, of death. Like any scripted film likely would, these two separate storylines eventually collide as the lions and cheetahs stumble upon one another. Because African Cats was shot over the course of two
Sculpting this footage into a film rather than yet another "so, these are what big cats in Africa are like" documentary works wonders. Of course, no matter what approach African Cats had taken with its cast of characters, the movie would be an instant recommendation for its cinematography alone. It stands strong as one of the most gorgeous films available on Blu-ray, period. The camerawork is strikingly cinematic...the sort of thing that would be impressive even if it had been meticulously planned in the controlled environment of a soundstage, let alone in the chaotic wild, tumbling around on Jeeps and helicopters. African Cats' cameras constantly discover intriguing perspectives, glide along smoothly, and feature some marvelously effective closeups that make me feel as if I'm that much more closely connected with these creatures. Some of the moments they capture are astonishing as well, most memorably a couple of adult cheetahs that skulk around Sita's unprotected cubs. Not only do they stand their ground, but they successfully fend off attackers many times their size! A slow-motion camera capturing a cheetah roaring ahead and bringing down her prey is among its many other incredible sights.
I'm sure it's no coincidence that the home video release of African Cats was held back so it'd hit Blu-ray alongside The Lion King, as the two play off each other spectacularly well. Though the documentary shies away from the phrase "the circle of life", that's very much at the forefront of both films just the same. Both stories alternate between the playful and the dark, and at their core, they weave stories about family, responsibility, power, and the concept of home. African Cats even features a herd of wildebeest, a warthog hunt, and a pack of hyenas preying on the young and defenseless -- some of the same enduring imagery as The Lion King. Even if you decide not to opt for the same double feature I did, African Cats is such an engaging and stunningly cinematic nature documentary that it's well-worth seeking out on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
Simply put, African Cats is a reference quality release on Blu-ray -- one of the first films I'd grab off the shelf to show off just how breathtaking
African Cats arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, encoded with AVC and presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
African Cats boasts a terrific DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack as well, presented in full 5.1 surround sound and with 24-bit audio. As you'd likely expect, the narration by Samuel L. Jackson is rooted front and center, and the bulk of the action is spread across the front channels as well. The surrounds are used largely to flesh out a subtle yet convincing sense of atmosphere -- chittering insects, cackling hyenas, lapping water, crashes of thunder, and the like -- but they really roar to life during some of the more intense chases and attacks. There are also smooth pans from one channel to the next during those sequences as well. I'm impressed by how clean and clear the audio is; despite the filmmakers' considerable distance from these animals, it really does sound as if they're just a few feet away. African Cats' score also takes full advantage of every channel at its disposal, bolstered by a thick, resonant low-end. A terrific effort all around.
A stereo Descriptive Video Service track has also been provided, as are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
African Cats comes packaged in a slightly embossed cardboard slipcover, and taped on it is an $8 coupon to pair this film with Disney's Blu-ray release of The Lion King. (If you're not game for upgrading The Lion King quite yet, any Disneynature Blu-ray title will do.) The second disc in the set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD of African Cats.
The Final Word
African Cats' engagingly cinematic approach and intimate familiarity with its cast of creatures set it apart from many of the other nature documentaries I've had the pleasure of seeing over the years. Even with as high as my expectations were going in, African Cats delivers so much more than I could've hoped to see. It's a movie I'm eager to share with my friends and family, mostly because it's such a terrific film and also because African Cats happens to be one of the most drop-dead gorgeous films available on Blu-ray at the moment. Very Highly Recommended, especially as the second half of a double feature with The Lion King.