The Last Lions
Published: March 9, 2011
The Last Lions
Directed by Dereck Joubert
There is no animal more emblematic of Africa than the lion, but as the prologue to Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s wildlife film notes, the number of wild lions has dropped from nearly half a million 50 years ago to less than 20,000 today. While it’s hard to imagine any but the most cold-hearted not feeling a pang at that statistic, the Jouberts don’t let the stark facts of the lion’s precarious survival speak for themselves. Perhaps determined to justify the big-screen release of what is, in essence, yet another nature documentary, they transform the story of one of these dwindling number of lions into a melodrama.
The Jouberts’ cameras follow a lioness they dub Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”) as she flees a large pride encroaching on her territory. Forced into the swamps of Botswana’s Okavango Delta with her new cubs, she must figure out how to hunt the area’s herds of huge, dangerous water buffalo on her own across watery terrain while fending off probing advances from the pride she fled in the first place. Even if everything that happens as she tries to protect her cubs (not always successfully) and come to grips with both buffalo and rival lions happened just as depicted, it feels conspicuously unreal. Maybe it’s the purple prose of the narration, delivered by Jeremy Irons in a rasping purr. Maybe it’s the telescoping of time that seems to take place, where it appears the passing of months or just days is elided or played up to suit the story. Maybe it’s the Jouberts’ love of slo-mo and monochrome and other techniques to heighten the impact of their footage. Boiling down events that unfold over months down to under an hour and a half of story takes some manipulation, to be sure, but the filmmaking here is so pumped up that it becomes hard to swallow.
While there’s no reason to doubt the good intentions of the filmmakers, this is weak stuff even as propaganda goes, not least because there seems to be nothing about the events that we viewing humans could affect. The narration notes that these last lions have been pushed into proximity by human encroachment, but once pushed together, they do what lions do and nature does what it does. Sad slo-mo notwithstanding, it’s hard to find the tragedy in that.
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