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Disneynature: African Cats

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // G // October 4, 2011 // Region 0
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 17, 2011 | E-mail the Author
You might think the title alone tells you everything you need to know about African Cats. There's more to Disney's latest nature documentary than
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that, though; it's not a playful primer into the many big cats that call Africa home but a story about family. Two families, actually, separated by a river. To the south is the River Pride, and among their number is a young lioness named Mara. When tragedy strikes, she's forced to choose between standing alongside her gravely injured mother or migrating with the rest of her pride in search of food. Mara's extended family, led by a lion who earned the name Fang after an unusual war wound, is also pitted against a group of lions looking to expand the size of their empire. On the other side of the river is Sita, a fearless cheetah who just recently gave birth to five cubs. Despite being the fastest creature on land, Sita's responsibility as a mother tethers her to her young children, throttling her speed and limiting the greatest advantage she has over those who would do her family harm. It's an unforgiving land, and their numbers quickly dwindle. Both sets of families have massive hurdles to bound over, and though there is loss and suffering along the way, they eventually overcome it all.

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 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
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years, it's made that much easier to feel invested in these creatures' lives. We're seeing more than just the tiniest sliver of their lives in the wild, and that intimacy and familiarity are integral to the impact the film makes. As cute and playful as it so often is, African Cats doesn't shy away from the brutality of this harsh, unforgiving climate either. Parents shouldn't fret -- there's nothing grisly or graphic on display's Disney, after all! -- but a number of the adorable creatures we're introduced to in the film's first few minutes don't make it to the end.

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
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high definition video can be. There's absolutely no comparison between a film as cinematic as African Cats and the nature documentaries you've likely caught on HD cable or satellite. The bitrate is afforded enough headroom that the compression never once sputters or stutters; even challenging sequences like a cheetah tearing across the grass at blinding speeds are rendered flawlessly. Its colors look rich and natural throughout, and contrast consistently remains robust as well. What I'm really in awe of are the levels of detail and clarity. In a lot of shots, I really do feel as if I can clearly discern each and every hair on these majestic creatures. The skilled digital photography here also lends African Cats an almost tactile sense of depth and dimensionality, and that's not something I'm able to say all that often about a traditional 2D release. African Cats is a spectacular looking disc and easily ranks among the very best that Blu-ray has to offer.

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.

  • Filmmaker Annotations: African Cats' most noteworthy extra is a picture-in-picture feature. Part of it is a textual trivia track, highlighting numerous facts about the production and the animals featured within. There's also extensive picture-in-picture video of the filmmakers at work and of wildlife
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    conservationists speaking about the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The annotations also sometimes branch off into full-frame high-def video, expanding on some of these topics at great length. Unlike the branching video I've seen in similar features on other discs, these clips are impressively in-depth, not just running 45 seconds each or anything cursory like that. As someone in awe of African Cats' masterful cinematography, I'm thrilled to see so much attention lavished on how the film was photographed. Among the many other highlights are the recording of the score at the Abbey Road Studios, the logistics of keeping track of all these animals in the wild, capturing rarely glimpsed moments like boxing aardvarks and lions crossing a river, how to photograph a cheetah hunting her prey at full speed, and why the Maasai Mara is such an ideal location for a film like this. The downside is that there's no way to access this footage aside from watching African Cats again, and there's no way to fast-forward or directly skip to a particular clip.

  • Save the Savanna (5 min.; HD): This featurette touches on how the large animals showcased in African Cats require vast expanses of land, and despite two of Africa's largest wildlife preserves being in such close proximity to one another, the privately-owned land in between has proven to be quite a hurdle as these creatures migrate. Disney is doing its part to bridge that gap, with proceeds from African Cats being used to lease those connecting lands and avoid further disrupting the natural flow of things.

  • Disney and Nature (4 min.; HD): African Cats' other featurette revolves around Disney's commitment to conservation and protection of nature.

  • Music Video (4 min.; HD): Also included is a high-def music video for Jordin Sparks' "The World I Knew".

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.
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Highly Recommended

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