Fox // 1999 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // October 4th, 2001
The real Lion King
In 1965, audiences were moved by the story of Joy and George Adamson and their quest to reintroduce the lioness Elsa to the wilds of Africa. That movie was called Born Free, and I'm sure you now have the song running in your head. Well, forget it, because George Adamson's further adventures are not quite so inspiring.
Tony Fitzjohn (John Michie) is a man without a home, wandering around Africa taking odd jobs. When he hooks up with the famed wildlife activist George Adamson (Richard Harris) and his brother Terence (Ian Bannen) on the Kora Reserve, he thinks he has finally found a purpose: reconditioning zoo-bred lions for their return to nature. But Kenya is wild in more ways than one. Poachers, corrupt soldiers, and personal conflicts threaten to tear Kora apart.
The first scene makes this film look more exciting than it really is: a man is stalked and killed by a lion. It only takes a minute, but it says much about the film. We do not know who the man is, and the scene is over with quickly. And the sequence seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
When you watch a "nature" film, you expect a few things. You expect that the cinematography will show off the scenery. This is not the case in To Walk With Lions. Not only is this DVD only available in a 1.33:1 pan and scan format (the original aspect ratio is 2:35:1), but it has virtually no establishing shots or sequences where the story slows down to dwell on the beautiful vistas of Kenya. Shots are mostly medium range at eye level, like a television movie. The lions tend to drop into the background in favor of plot development among the human characters. And the print seems to be mastered for airing on television as well: the colors are flat and lack texture. Director Carl Schultz has spent much of the last few years scaling down the adventures of Indiana Jones for television, which indicates a skill for reducing impressive vistas to backgrounds and moving the plot ahead before the next commercial. While these talents do serve well for television movies, the resulting films seem to suffer later on DVD, where all the flaws come through loud and clear.
Another thing you might expect from a film such as this is some sort of "lesson." In this case, To Walk With Lions does deliver. Rather than simply pounding viewers over the head with the traditional "poaching is bad" message, director Carl Schultz tries to give a rather complex portrait of the political climate of Kenya, noting that poaching is a symptom of widespread poverty, the political fallout from local wars (the Shifta bandits are refugees who turn to robbery), and mismanaged land use (soil depletion drives herders into Kora in search of food for their cattle). In one notable scene, soldiers beat Fitzjohn after a violent battle with poachers. One of the soldiers tells Fitzjohn that not only was one of the soldiers killed his brother, but that one of the poachers killed was his cousin. In other words, the use (and misuse) of land and animals in parts of Africa is a part of the social fabric itself, and not magically fixed simply by rendering some actions illegal. Everyone is complicit in the problem.
And Adamson is a fairly complicated character as well. Is he an obsessed lunatic for insisting on protecting Kora even as his life is increasingly threatened? Or is he a hero for standing up for his lions to the bitter end? Adamson is more complicated than the usual "heroic naturalist" stereotype often seen in environmentally friendly movies. He is a man perhaps too deeply committed to his cause to see when it is time to move on to greener pastures. Unfortunately, while Richard Harris has some strong moments carrying off the part, his intensity seems to wane into mere exhaustion from time to time, and he spends most of the movie whispering. In one important scene, he and Tony discuss the future of Kora, and Harris actually steps to the edge of the microphone's pickup range during a two-shot and nearly drops out. And nobody went back to remix this or redub it later.
The rest of the cast gives serviceable performances, again more suited to a television movie, where scale and intensity can be cranked down a notch, than for a theatrical release (which might explain why this Canadian/British co-production did go straight to television in the United States). John Michie has a hard time making the cliché metamorphosis from dissolute wanderer to committed hero (and romantic lead) come across, but that is mostly due to problems in the script's pacing. As I have said before, it is always a bad sign for a script that must advance its action through voice-over narration rather than visual details. Honor Blackman pops in briefly as Joy Adamson, estranged from her husband (and shortly thereafter killed, apparently by poachers, although the biographical note elsewhere on the disc says that she was killed in real life by one of her own lions). And Geraldine Chaplin shows up later as an ex-girlfriend of Adamson's arrived for a reunion in the twilight of their lives. Both parts generate momentary character tension, but seem underdeveloped. The script seems to insist on moving ahead as quickly as possible without allowing either the scenery or the characters to take over. There is a distinct tension within the film as to whether it wants to be driven by character or plot, and the result is that both become flawed.
I suspect that part of this inconsistent tone is the target audience. Although the film has its share of foul language, this DVD release seems targeting to preteens. The trailers included on the disc (besides the film's own trailer) are for Mom's Outta Sight (a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids pastiche) and Ping! This latter film (exclamation point included) combines an ugly-cute dog with the plot of Home Alone for slapstick gags seemingly written by a ten-year-old. And the trailer seems to show the entire movie. If you aren't frightened enough by that, go read Judge Naugle's review. In any case, it appears that Fox is aiming this film at preteens, even though its environmentalist message is fairly complicated, its language is not always kid-friendly (although the violence is somewhat lighter, given its poaching and murder scenes, than a theatrical Hollywood film might have been), and there probably is not enough footage of the lions and other animals to hold a kid's attention for long.
The full-frame print and the relative lack of detailed extras reinforce the sense that this film is aimed at families with preteen children. Cast biographies stress Harris' upcoming role in Harry Potter, but neglect to mention his last foray into Africa in Tarzan the Ape Man (perhaps the trauma of that film is what makes him seem to tune out during some scenes in To Walk With Lions). There is a text profile of George Adamson, but the disc needs some sort of interview, or essay from the real Tony Fitzjohn, or some first-hand documentary footage of Kora or the lions -- anything to drive the reality behind the story home.
There are moments where To Walk With Lions does make its point, that protecting the wildlife of Africa is a complex and dangerous affair. But inconsistent direction and performances make this less of an inspiration than it might have been. If you catch this on television or see it for rental, it is worth your time, but without much nature photography, you probably will not get enough replay value out of this film with your kids to make it worth owning.
For their good intentions, the cast and crew of To Walk With Lions is let off with a warning: make sure that you put forth the effort to match the scale of your subject. Fox is fined heavily for releasing this film in pan and scan only.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailer
* Cast and Crew Biographies
* George Adamson Profile