One of the most urgent and certainly among the most beautifully shot documentaries to hit the big screen in recent memory, "The Last Lions" isn't just another cute and fuzzy encounter session with a different species. It's a pulse-quickening, tear-duct milking and outrageously dramatized story about the threats — wildfires, chomping teeth, stampeding hooves and, worst of all, unseen humans — that face a female lion trying to protect her cubs. Here, single motherhood doesn't mean juggling family, work and PTA meetings: it means parking the tots in the bushes and then trying to take down a water buffalo the size of a jeep.
Alas, the movie's title is horrifyingly accurate. Conservation groups tend to put the current population of African lions at roughly between 20,000 and 50,000, a staggering decline from the estimated 400,000 that were born and roamed free a half-century ago. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global network of environmental groups, has classified lions as vulnerable and indicates that their numbers are only declining. Their future looks grim, even hopeless. (In Kenya, home to Elsa of the popular 1966 movie "Born Free," wild lions might be wiped out within one to two decades.) All this makes a well-intentioned movie like "The Last Lions," from the husband and wife filmmaking team Dereck and Beverly Joubert, necessary viewing.
"The Last Lions" is a worthy, intensive labor of love that took years to shoot and edit, and it's also more gripping than a lot of recent Hollywood thrillers. Commendably, the Jouberts and National Geographic (its movie division is distributing the documentary) have also established the Big Cats Initiative, an international conservation project to spread the word about endangered cats. Yet by sensationalizing and sentimentalizing a tale of animal life and death, by focusing on one lion family instead of the threats faced by a species, the Jouberts have risked reducing a real catastrophe into a tidy fiction. Then again, is the fault really theirs or of those who pay attention only when a tragedy looks like something they can relate to?
By Manohla Dargis, from The New York Times
While jaw-dropping footage of the animals of the African bush is a remarkable aspect of "The Last Lions," more impressive still is the strong narrative thread that runs through the nature documentary. The National Geographic film manages to add the punch of a war movie and the emotion of a family drama to this chronicle of a lioness's life. The result is a movie that may be geared to a nature film fan base but will also appeal to admirers of good storytelling.
By Stephanie Merry, from The Washington Post