This remarkable family film made Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees want to adopt a lion cub as a pet—especially if it could talk with Robbie Coltrane's voice.
Macheeba: Most animals don't know what it's like to live like this.
This remarkable family film takes us into the Serengeti to experience life among a pride of lions. Even if it were only for the footage of lions in the wild, unprecedented in its up-close and intimate viewpoint, this would be a unique film. Add the extraordinary computer animation techniques of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, which permit the lions to speak in a lifelike manner, and an engaging story line about a young lioness's coming of age, and Pride becomes a genuinely fascinating experience.
Facts of the Case
Adventurous lion cub Suki (voice of Kate Winslet, Titanic) lives in a pride of lions with her timid brother Linus (Rupert Graves, The Forsyte Saga) and her stately mother Macheeba (Helen Mirren, Calendar Girls). The pride is fortunate in enjoying verdant land and the (theoretical) protection of the two older male lions, James (Robbie Coltrane, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and Eddie (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge!). Young Suki is restless, though. She resists her mother's hunting lessons and even toys with the idea of becoming a vegetarian rather than helping to support the pride by bringing in game. After a particularly heated argument with her mother, Suki strikes out for the other side of the river, a place where her pride never ventures. Not only do dangerous crocodiles populate the river, but in the wasteland beyond, two sinister male lions known as the Wanderers rule the territory: malicious Harry (John Hurt, Hellboy) and mysterious Dark (Sean Bean, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). Although Dark has killed a lioness from Suki's pride, he once saved Suki from a pack of hyenas, and she has become fascinated with this powerful beast. But will Suki be able to find happiness with Dark, away from her pride? And what will happen if Dark and Harry decide they want to claim the pride's lands for themselves?
Pride is one of the most unusual coming-of-age films I've ever seen. I must admit that I came to this film with considerable wariness, having read only that it told the story of a lion cub who decided to become a vegetarian. The idea of lions being used to promote a human lifestyle choice set my political correctness detector buzzing loudly. Fortunately, Suki's reluctance to hunt is only one part of the story of her growing up and becoming part of the lion community, and it's presented in a way that, while still more human than leonine, doesn't force an agenda on the audience.
When the story begins, Suki is a child, and all she wants to do is play and explore; hunting primarily strikes her as boring, but also as "mean." She is a very social creature, wanting to make friends with every animal she sees. (She is somewhat hindered in this desire by the fact that lions are the only animals in the film with the power of speech.) Nevertheless, she doesn't mind eating other animals once they're dead. As she grows older, her rejection of hunting is the main way she rebels against the obligations of adulthood. Even when she joins Dark on the other side of the river, however, she finds that she can't escape the obligation to hunt; when she doesn't contribute to the Wanderers' welfare by bringing in food, she becomes, in Dark's blunt assessment, a "useless parasite," leading to tragic consequences. Ultimately Suki learns that, for a lion—especially one who has a pride or cubs to look after—hunting is a duty, not a choice. In a parallel subplot, scaredy-cat Linus grows up into a courageous lion who plays an important role in protecting his pride. Overall I felt that the screenplay did a good job of combining authentic features of the lifestyle of these animals with some humanizing touches to make the characters more accessible to young viewers. The portrait of leonine life may not be entirely accurate, but the story should help children begin to grasp the essentials of a lion's existence.
Since the story follows Suki from cubhood to motherhood and beyond, we see many events in a lion's life—and, thanks to the new technology of "boulder cam," we get to see them from an astoundingly intimate viewpoint. The two bonus features on the disc provide an introduction to boulder cam, which, as its name implies, is a camera disguised as a boulder. Because it is remote controlled and presented in a guise that the lions come to accept, it is able to penetrate into the midst of the pride, capturing footage of lions from mere inches away. In addition to seeing the lions at different stages of growth, we also get close-up looks at hyenas, baboons, vultures, and mongeese. (A companion technology known as "dung cam" provides close-up footage of wild elephants.) The authenticity of this footage makes the film compelling and powerful; it's probably the closest viewers will ever get to the actual experience of living among lions. The animation that has been added to the live-action footage to create the illusion of the lions' mouths moving is remarkably convincing; there were very few places where the animation drew attention to itself, and for the most part it blends into the live footage astonishingly smoothly. Only the faces of the lions were animated, moreover, so all of the animals' other movements are authentic. The technology alone makes Pride a must-see film for animal lovers.
The outstanding voice cast also helps bring the characters to vivid life. Since the lion characters are difficult to distinguish visually (apart from the fundamental differences of age and gender), the distinctive and expressive voices aid immeasurably in our ability to follow the story, from the lazy rumbles of James and Eddie to the shrill boastings of Fleck (Martin Freeman, The Office). In particular, Winslet's spunky performance stands out; she makes Suki an endearing heroine. The writing by Simon Nye is also to be commended. While the dialogue is occasionally less than inspired, the screenplay contains enough humor and personality to engage viewers of almost every age, and scenes in which lions face danger are genuinely tense. The depiction of Suki and Linus's sibling bickering will ring true to kids with sisters or brothers, and the film's message about learning to take on responsibility as one grows to adulthood is an admirable one. Also enhancing the film is the marvelous cinematography, which presents us with breathtaking African vistas as well as intimate moments of animal life. The visual spectacle of Pride is definitely among its distinctive elements.
Although it is fairly discreet in its presentation of violence, mating, and bodily functions, Pride is definitely a film that parents will want to watch with their children, since it will probably raise questions about the facts of life—and death. The film doesn't make the lions conform to human customs like monogamy, for example; James and Eddie identify themselves as the fathers of various lionesses' cubs, and when Suki asks Dark if she is special to him, he responds smoothly, "All my lionesses are special." Over the course of the film Suki fends off the unwelcome advances of Fleck, a boastful young lion she dislikes, and although Fleck doesn't succeed in his wooing, young children may want to know why he is climbing on top of Suki and what he means by "doing what comes natural." Later in the film Suki produces cubs of her own, and, again, parents may find themselves needing to provide explanations. Likewise, the matter-of-fact presentation of the lions' predatory behavior, while discreet, may be too gory or distressing for some children. We don't see the animals in bloody death throes, but we do see lots of crimson munchings after they are dead. Two lions also die over the course of the film, and the corpses do have blood on them. While I applaud the film for finding an effective balance between honesty and restraint, parents should be the judge of whether this material is too mature for their children.
Audiovisual quality for Pride is handsome. The picture is crisp, with bold, saturated color that is simply ravishing in scenes that take place at sunset. (Compare the finished film to the raw footage in the extras and you'll find that some color enhancement must have been used to create the rich palette.) Night scenes are also beautifully distinct, with no grain or loss of detail. The picture is also thoroughly clean and free of any speckling or dirt. The 5.1 surround audio track is effective in its treatment of sound effects to create depth of field; dialogue is very clear, and the musical score envelopes the viewer nicely without becoming overpowering. Audio in the two bonus features is even more impressive, since the accompanying music makes better use of bass and crystalline highs.
The two excellent extra features on the disc will enhance kids' understanding of both filmmaking techniques and life among lions. "Talking with Lions," a lively 29-minute featurette hosted by Martin Freeman, takes kids behind the scenes of Pride. Alternating between location filming with both wild and tame lions, dialogue recording sessions, and an exploration of the computer animation process, this is an instructive yet entertaining featurette. (For example, we get to see all the clowning around the crew resorted to in order to evoke reactions from the lions they were filming.) More educational in tone, the 49-minute wildlife special "Lions: Spy in the Den" is hosted by David Attenborough and depicts many real-life counterparts of the events that were incorporated into the Pride story: the antics and early hunting experiments of lion cubs, the adult lions' hunting forays, and mating behavior. (Parents should note that both hunting and mating are presented slightly more graphically here than in the film, although they are still reasonably discreet.) This featurette may be a trifle dry for young viewers, but it taught me things I didn't know about lions, and the factual background it provides for the film makes it a valuable extra. A small assortment of trailers for other kids' fare includes a trailer for the National Geographic film Roar: Lions of the Kalahari, in case viewers are hungry for more lion footage after Pride.
If your kids loved The Lion King but are beginning to outgrow it, or if you're simply looking for some high-quality children's entertainment, Pride should be at the top of your list. The unprecedented scrutiny of lions in the wild will captivate adults as well as children, and should ensure a high rewatchability factor—and the sheer adorableness of the lion cubs is practically guaranteed to ensnare the hearts of viewers both old and young.
Not guilty! The king of the jungle is free to continue his reign.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• "Talking with Lions" Making-of Featurette
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