Born free, as free as the wind blows…
Born Free is the film adaptation of Joy Adamson's book Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds. Adamson's book, based on her true-life adventures with the animals of Kenya, became a world-wide best seller, captivating millions with her stories of life in Africa among the wild animals.
Facts of the Case
Joy and George Adamson are Britons living in colonial Kenya in the mid-1960s. George (Bill Travers) is part of the colonial administration, serving as chief game warden in the northern province. His duty is to protect wildlife from poachers, and to protect people from unruly wildlife. When a man-eating lion begins terrorizing nearby villages, it is up to George and his men to destroy it. They track the lion down and kill it; just as they think their mission is complete, they are surprised by the lion's mate and are forced to kill her as well. In the aftermath, they find three now-orphaned lion cubs that will starve without protection.
Joy (Virginia McKenna, Sliding Doors) falls in love with the cubs almost immediately, and the couple adopts them. After several tries they concoct a milk formula that the young lions will accept, and begin to nurse them to health. As the cubs grow, the difficulties of raising lions becomes apparent; having three frisky kittens the size of terriers (and later, German shepherds) in the house wreaks havoc on everything from furniture to dinner guests.
The Adamsons make the difficult decision to send the lions away to a zoo where they can live out their lives in safety. Joy knows it is for the best, but is heartbroken at losing them. However, the wily George secretly keeps Joy's favorite, the young lioness that Joy has named Elsa.
The three live together as a family until Elsa reaches adulthood, at which point even Joy realizes that a lion just isn't a very good family pet. Rather than pack her off to some European zoo, Joy determines that she and George will teach Elsa how to hunt and fend for herself so that they may return her to the wild.
Born Free won two Academy Awards upon its release in 1966: one for Best Score, and the other for Best Song. Yes, that's right, this movie is the source of the song "Born Free," which has appeared in everything from bank commercials to episodes of The Simpsons. The man behind this excellent musical score is none other than John Barry, known for such other sweeping scores as Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves, as well as being the genius behind the distinctive "James Bond Theme" and the title song from Goldfinger. Barry seems at home here, with his music capturing the spirit of the magnificent open vistas of Africa and teeming wildlife. So powerful is Barry's score that it elevates the film, giving a sense of scope, grandeur, and unity to what otherwise might feel a bit like a Lifetime Network special, or a really, really long episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.
Which is not to say that Born Free is a bad movie. There is something charming and refreshing about this pre-political correctness tale of two people and the lioness they love. It is an innocent story, free of cynicism or irony or any trace of mean-spiritedness. It is a story that takes one back to a gentler, happier time. Indeed, Joy Adamson's stories about Elsa have been published in many different forms; I am quite sure I remember having a picture book about her entitled Elsa Gets a Kitten, or something to that effect, when I was a small child. (I'm also pretty sure that when my mom and my sister read this, they will call me and tell me that they remember no such thing, and that I should quit making up childhood memories.) The movie itself, while perhaps a bit slow at times, tells the story of Elsa and the Adamsons in such a loving way that it is hard not to fall under its spell.
McKenna and Travers do nicely in their roles as the colonial couple. McKenna has a fresh-faced, unassuming, unglamorous sort of beauty that makes her completely believable in the role. Travers, for his part, plays George as suitably British, dignified and stiff upper lip, but not above letting his feelings for Joy or Elsa show. Perhaps their most remarkable achievement is reminding the audience that this is not just a film about lions, but also a film about two real people who love each other very much and are very devoted to each other.
The DVD from Columbia TriStar presents two versions of the movie: the correctly framed widescreen version and a completely gratuitous hack-and-scan transfer. Both of these are found on the same side of the disc, and are accessed through a menu option. Watching it, one gets the feeling that this movie has seen better days. The picture quality is about what one might expect from a 36-year-old family film; in other words, just not very good. The source print has aged and yellowed over time. The image is noticeably soft much of the time, often showing large amounts of grain, picture noise, or both. Many nicks and scratches are visible at various points in the movie. Colors are generally faded and washed out, giving much of the movie a sort of beige sameness. This is broken by moments where the colors are oversaturated and garish. The opening credits, for example, are done in a nasty blaze orange typeface and bleed so badly as to be mostly illegible. At times there is massive edge enhancement and associated haloing, as well as massive aliasing or "jaggies" in what should be smoothly curved surfaces. Worst of all, there's an apparently VHS-inspired flicker at the top of the frame from time to time. In short, it's a pretty typical Columbia TriStar release.
Audio is presented in Dolby Stereo. This is surprisingly good, given the age and nature of the source material. The audio is a bit limited in range, but comes through pleasantly and relatively clearly; dialogue is clear and easy to understand.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there are criticisms to be made of Born Free, they probably lie in the area of the overall story and pacing. This is a very episodic story that tells the tale of the Adamsons and Elsa over the course of a number of years; as such, it can feel a bit disjointed at times, as though the individual vignettes don't knit together very well to make a unified whole.
Virginia McKenna, as noted earlier, does a good job as Joy Adamson and brings a sense of grace and honesty to the role. However, at time she is guilty of bringing a bit of melodrama as well, and some of her overwrought laments over Elsa's fate can be a bit grating. These are only minor and infrequent flaws, however, and only detract a bit from what is otherwise a good performance.
Born Free is pretty good family entertainment. As I watched it, I rather wished I had kids to share it with. (Of course, I wish that a lot, but that's not important right now.) In any other context, however, it is a bit dull, really, and the picaresque storyline feels more than a bit disjointed. Still, even the adults in the audience will find it hard not to be moved by this touching, wholesome story of two people who truly love each other and who also share a deep love for the lion cubs they adopt.
It's a close call, but we find Born Free Not Guilty. Taken for what it is, it accomplishes what it sets out to do quite nicely. It's a family film about interesting people and cool animals, and it manages not to insult or talk down to the audience along the way.
The studio, on the other hand, obviously put less time and energy into this DVD than it takes to watch it. On the other hand, what do you expect for a rickety old family flick? One supposes we should just be grateful that Columbia TriStar is paying any attention to their older catalog titles at all; other studios have not done as much.
We stand adjourned.
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• Theatrical Trailer
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