The Last Lions debuts tonight on National Geographic Wild at 8 p.m. Eastern.
I’m not sure there’s any more depressing brand of television these days than the nature documentary. I don’t remember it being like this when I was a kid and a fan of the genre. Sure, there was some death, and there were warnings about the ramifications of unchecked human behavior, but nowadays most nature docs have the feeling that something has gone horrifically wrong. It’s no longer “This is how the animal kingdom works,” it’s “All of these animals are going to die and not be replaced.”
This is in large part necessary. A statistic repeated at the very beginning and end of The Last Lions is that in 1950, there were 450,000 lions, and now there may be 20,000. It’s not just lions, of course, but this is Big Cat Week at NatGeo Wild, so the focus is understandable. It’s also easier to focus on large animals, particularly the mammals called “charismatic” and very few are a charismatic or iconic as lions. The Last Lions won’t change that idea at all. It’ll probably make more than a few converts, in fact.
Although the doc starts with a brief overview of the demographic state of lions in the world, it quickly moves into an intensely narrow focus on a lioness it calls Ma di Tau, Mother/Protector of Lions. Humans are mentioned at the start, as the reason that a larger pride of lions encroaches on Ma di Tau and her mate’s territory, but they are never seen. Instead, it’s a straightforward tale of survival, filled with victories and defeats.
And you will cry. Or at least choke up. Because in addition to her mate being crippled in the defense of her lands, Ma di Tau also has three cubs, and the journey is an especially dangerous one. It’s almost impossible not to view her story in fairly human terms, and that’s a dangerous thing to do. Early in the documentary her motivations are specifically ascribed, which is something of a pet peeve of mine in nature docs, saying that after being driven from her lands she’s “ready to pick up her life”, or that lions don’t like deep water because “it hides things that seems unnatural to them”. Yet later in the documentary we see things that certainly seem to be forms of grieving, desperation, the assumption of leadership, revenge, and forgiveness.
Some of this is doubtless due to the documentary’s editing and narration, but I think there’s more to it than that. I received screeners for Big Cat Week last year, which also included documentaries from the same filmmakers, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and I watched a couple of them. Those docs had a much wider focus, without much attempt to tell a personal story of a single or small number of lions. So I suspect that this documentary turned into the feline version of March Of The Penguins simply because Ma di Tau’s story was such an impressive narrative, with so many relatable moments.
It helps that the documentary is gorgeous, showing off Planet Earth-levels of digital clarity. A moment where an elephant shakes its head at an audacious lion cub against a crisp blue sky is the first indication of the beauty on display. The most impressive aspect are the wide shots, where you can see the sky and the savannah, with everything in focus and nothing seeming too small. But it’s not just the technology that shows an impressive level of craft, the cinematography also manages to find some amazing moments. When the herd of buffalo who are Ma di Tau’s antagonists launch what looks like a commando raid on a rival pride of lions, the cameras pick that up. The tactics of savannah battle are captured with clarity. The audio is superb as well, from the plaintive yowls of a lion cub and chattering of hyenas to the narration, provided by lion-vocal expert Jeremy Irons.
Yes, it is depressing. Yes, it’s probably at least a bit manipulative. But I’ll be damned if, over the course of a single heart-breaking scene, The Last Lions didn’t manage to take pretend grown-up Rowan and turn him into an emotional wreck of a 7-year-old who gets inconsolably sad out when bad things happen to kitties. I can try to act like an analytic critic all I want, but it really just comes down to this: The Last Lions is beautiful, and you will cry.
Note: The website for Big Cat Week and The Last Lions is running a donation campaign, with some cute tactics like a Little Cats For Big Cats picture gallery.