Samuel L. Jackson narrates this cleverly done good vs. evil tale set on the Kenyan plains, informative and beautiful to look at. Two lion prides wage war for territory as a cheetah clan just takes it all in, edited well enough to believe that’s exactly what was planned.
Of course, it’s nature, making the squeezed-in narrative style all the more impressive. Jackson’s voice has enough impact to push those emotional moments into overdrive, and it’s Disney, so sure, some animals do die. Shockingly, it’s long past the opening 10-minutes and the kids are cared for; they don’t have to go on some life-altering journey alone.
Most are not diving into African Cats for its story but the visuals, this Disney Nature piece staggering in its scope, and shaming related IMAX features. Aerials of herds are immense and beautiful, close-ups of the predators both cute and fearsome. Motion is stunning, the speed of the cheetahs slowed to appreciate the movements while offering a sense how little energy is wasted during their sprints.
There are no failed shots, some remarkable in their luck, including a series of sunset vistas that are amongst the best ever captured during this recent wave of expensive nature docs. Lying with their prides, the cubs and their parents situate themselves better than most professional photographers could ever hope for, waving grass in the foreground giving a sense of place.
Out of place is Nicholas Hooper’s score, appropriate if oddly familiar. It’s hard to shake those feelings of familiarity, although the footage behind it is usually majestic enough to carry the film anyway. That is African Cats legacy, a healthy budget that allowed the filmmakers to capture these images for extended periods, while creating a humanistic connection with these creatures. That’s not easily accomplished.
It would appear African Cats was captured digitally, the format creating perfect spectacle of these wide plains and supremely detailed cats. There are moments where everything doesn’t quite come together, certain panoramas taking on a smudged quality, water especially oily in its appearance. That’s the digital source defect, the only one.
Those disparaging shots are few in number, clearly this disc meant to be a showcase. For Blu-ray, it certainly is, many of the shoddily transferred IMAX features yet again losing out to these glamorous and pristine images. This is a flawless AVC encode, giving little sense the material was ever compressed. Usually a shot of a sky or some complex views of grasslands will give it away, but that’s simply not the case here.
What’s left are brilliantly defined images, so clear and natural the detail just pours through. The number of totally lifelike close-ups, free of any imperfections, is quite honestly ridiculous. It’s just not fair to other big cat related docs on Blu-ray. Fur is resolved to an individualized level, and those flowing manes perfection.
Color is typically kept firm and natural, those scenes of danger or predatory attacks dampened slightly to give them an edgier quality. Black levels keep up their end of the bargain though, fresh, clean, and consistent. Noise is a rare, barely noticeable occurrence, and nothing has been done to spruce up the contrast for effect.
Though much of it sounds artificial, there’s a plethora of sound effects plunked into this DTS-HD mix, overloading the experience with ambiance. As if the images weren’t enough to pull the viewer in, the audio mix simply dominates. It should too, that constant presence there for immersion. It’s purposeful without ever going overboard, bird chirps, guttural lion roars, and insects all enveloping the listener. A nighttime bit at 24:23 is simply marvelous in how well it creates a surrounded environment. Water splashes front to back and into the rears, while grass can be heard rustling during some stalking sessions.
The score doesn’t come and go without notice, instruments precise in their positional placement and blaring with no lack of fidelity. Drums will blast the low-end, creating a bit of a spark the disc would otherwise not have a chance of creating. Jackson’s narration is firm in the center, always at the forefront of the mix.
While not overflowing with explosions, African Cats is actually quite the showcase disc for those that appreciate classical pieces and a sense of being somewhere other than a home theater.
Disney and Nature is a promo piece on the company’s green efforts, the first of a nearly non-existent extras menu. Save the Savannah is a plea from director Alastair Fothergill to protect the diminishing landscape he grew up in. A music video from Jordin Sparks rounds off the bonus menu.
There is one more feature lurking, a clumsy picture-in-picture piece with on again/off again commentary. Playing the feature with this on branches to other video, and you can’t even fast forward to make it to a specific section. That’s sloppy implementation.