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The Last Lions - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Last Lions
Directing: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: A
Editing: A

First, a warning: The Last Lions is not for the faint of heart. There's a reason this nature documentary film is rated PG, and it's because its sprinkling of arguably disturbing images are certainly not suitable for young children -- especially when the director so blatantly shapes the story to appeal to all-too-human (and not at all cat-like) emotions. There are a couple of shots of a lion cub with a broken back that haunt me even now.

That said, anyone with even a passing interest in nature documentaries should not be deterred from seeing this one, which, even with its couple of rather blatant flaws, is absolutely worth seeing. In fact, the cinematography is so lush with stunning shots of the Botswanan landscape that it makes this one of the few documentary films that actually are better seen in a movie theatre.

The film follows the trials and tribulations of a lioness and her newborn cubs, having been forced from their territory by an unfamiliar pride and made to fend for themselves on new and unfamiliar terrain. This story starts with the invasion of the other pride of lions, forced from their own other areas by encroaching civilization, which includes the ultimately fatal attack on the lioness's mate and the cubs' father (again with the imagery potentially difficult for children: we actually see the moment the lion dies).

This action takes place before the cubs are even born, and really serves as a prologue to the bulk of the story -- which regards the lioness, hereafter referred to as Ma di Tau ("Mother of Lions"), desperately trying to raise and protect her cubs as "a single mother."

The one genuine problem with The Last Lions is its blatant anthropomorphism, which occasionally gets a little over the top. Even the phrase "single mother" made me wonder if she'll need to work two jobs to avoid having to go on welfare. When the invading pride of lions arrives and attacks, the pack of other lionesses severely wound Ma di Tau, and Ma di Tau manages to blind one eye of the leader of the pride -- thereafter referred to as "Silver Eye." As the story unfolds and the pack of lionesses encroach upon Ma di Tau and her cubs, there are frequent flashbacks to the battle between Ma di Tau and Silver Eye, with her injury that "she will not soon forget." As if cats ever think in such ways.

Nearly all of the movie is like this, presenting lions as capable of both hatred and reconciliation -- in short, capable of character development. Ma di Tau is cast as a desperate, loving mother as opposed to a wild animal simply instinctively protecting its own bloodline. To the credit of director Dereck Joubert, however, if he must humanize these animals, he does it extraordinarily well. The Last Lions is a tautly edited, eminently gripping film. Is it emotionally manipulative? Absolutely, and quite transparently so. But even for skeptics, that's precisely what makes the film both eye-popping and moving.

Besides, getting back to that imagery of dying or injured animals -- particularly cute, fluffy ones -- these unpleasant aspects are part of a broader integrity to the filmmaking. It may be emotionally unrealistic, but The Last Lions certainly refuses to shy away from what are truly the harsh realities of living in the wild. It may be horrifying to see a cub with a broken back, but it does us good to know that these things happen, and to understand why.

Ma di Tau have more enemies than just the invading pride of lions, after all. After being forced from her territory, she finds a seemingly secluded spot on an island after crossing an only somewhat shallow river. Luckily for her, at first the other lions are loath to follow her into the water (but so is another of Ma di Tau's three cubs, with disastrous consequences). But these waters present countless other potentially mortal, unknown dangers -- including both crocodiles and hippopotamuses. More significantly, a huge herd of buffalo moves into the area, posing dangers and opportunities in equal measure. Much of the film is devoted to Ma di Tau calculating ways to capture and eat one of these aggressive animals without the herd killing her or her cubs first.

As such, The Last Lions (the title referring to lion populations dwindling from more than 450,000 to around 20,000 in the past 50 years) is filled with genuine suspense. When the invading pride of lions finally comes skulking across the river in a tight pack, you fear for Ma di Tau's survival. When buffalo run after the cubs, you fear for them. And the unnecessarily human emotional context notwithstanding, there is no candy-coating here: there comes a point where Ma di Tau's situation appears to be completely hopeless. This is simply the nature of the wild, but no doubt through clever editing, the film ends with on an up note, regarding Ma di Tau's standing both as a mother and with the invading lionesses.

When the credits roll, the first thing seen is the plea for donations to CauseAnUproar.org and to text "lions" to 50555 to donate $10. A worthy cause, to be sure, but an unfortunately timed one given the far greater urgency of earthquake and tsunami relief in Japan. But for those who have any more charity to spare, this is indeed one more among many worthy causes.

Not even all these lions make it to the end of the film in 'The Last Lions'.

Overall: A-
1 comment or Leave a comment
Dino Martinez From: Dino Martinez Date: December 17th, 2011 06:20 am (UTC) (Link)

The Last Lions

The only blatant flaw here is the critique by "cinema_holic" whom believes that the human animal (and yes, even humans are animals too) are the only animal that can show, feel and give raw emotion such as love, pain, joy and/or sorrow. it is this way of ignorant and arrogant thinking which is destroying our planet and makes us believe we are the only animals worth living.
The Jouberts point of trying to make a human audience to even begin to understand the plight of these majestic beings and the urgency in which we need to act in trying to save them is the very reason in which they gave these lions human traits. To try and open an otherwise closed and shallow mind of mankind and to make us see that yes, even though Japan suffered a tsunami and thousands were killed... that is nature. Humankind will not be on the brink of extermination due to the tragedy in Japan. But the last lions are on the brink of termination. And unless we as the animals who are killing them for sport, culture, fear and ignorance do not open our minds, hearts and souls and begin to give a damn what happens then we will kill them off to extinction. That means gone forever and that's a mighty long time....
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