After 22 movies over 28 years, Dereck and Beverly Joubert know everything about filming the king of the jungle, so their latest effort, The Last Lions, is mighty impressive to look at. What it’s like to listen to is something else.Major forces in wildlife conservation, the Jouberts are so revered that Disney animators watched one of their films to get in the mood for creating The Lion King. They have lived for the last seven years on Duba Island in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where their latest documentary feature takes place. That proximity means that The Last Lions is filled with spectacular animal photography, compelling footage of beasts moving proudly in their world. We see them fighting each other, combating packs of hyenas and taking part in epic showdowns with herds of massive buffalos. These are truly remarkable visuals, inspired in part by the Jouberts’ understandable concern for a species that has dwindled to 20,000 from 450,000 half a century ago. That dwindling is one of the themes of The Last Lions, which follows a lone lioness named Ma di Tau (Mother of Lions) as she tries to stay alive and protect her three cubs from a variety of threats from several species, including her own. Hers is not a sugar-coated world, far from it, with animals, including ones we have become attached to, coming to a variety of somber ends. All those years of filming have given the Jouberts a ringside seat on the lives of the lions they’ve observed, but the effort of squeezing all that footage into an 88-minute film that nominally covers roughly a year’s time has had consequences. For one thing, there is, as may be inevitable in nature films, a certain amount of anthropomorphizing, a determination to endow animals with human character and tendencies. This starts with naming the story’s female protagonist and pretending the lioness realizes that’s what she’s called. It extends to engaging in animal mind reading, telling us what this one or that is thinking or feeling. Because of their great experience, the Jouberts’ guesses are more than plausible, but finally guesses are all they can be. This situation is not helped by a voice-over narration read by Jeremy Irons in his plumiest tones that is so highly dramatized that the on-screen credit reads “as told by” instead of the more pedestrian “narrator.” “Tonight, the bush is uneasy,” Irons says early on to set the scene, and then moves on to “the silence is a condemnation,” “she is a fugitive in her own land” and “the pride sense something in the look in her eye.” Finally, though, maybe none of these problems matters. No one, with the possible exception of the narrator’s family, goes to a nature film to listen to the voice-over, and these animals are so magnificent on screen that nothing anybody says makes much of a difference.
Movie InfoNarrator: Jeremy Irons.
Writer-director: Dereck Joubert.
Producer: Name(s) goes here.
A National Geographic release. Running time: 88 minutes. Some animal violence. In Miami-Dade only: Cosford Cinema.