The Last Lions begins with a startling statistic: in only 50 years, the lion population in the wild has dropped from 450,000 to 20,000. Dereck Joubert's documentary spotlights the stresses facing the remaining animals by focusing on one lion family. While the anthropomorphism Joubert employs to tell the lions' story may strike some as cloying, ultimately that doesn't distract from this tale of survival in an inhospitable environment. Expect modest box office returns for a film that will appeal equally to lovers of the big cats and those interested in animal and environmental issues.
Though all sorts of problems are contributing to the decline of the giant cats, it is human encroachment into the animals' territory that is the big culprit in Last Lions. In Botswana's Osavango Delta, a new pride of lions displaced from their native terrain stakes out a new home, evicting a lioness and her three cubs in the process. The lioness Joubert dubs Ma di Tau ("Mother of Lions") has limited options: she can't get past the pride; in another direction, a fire rages; if she strays too far in another direction, she'll run into humans where she can be shot as a predator or just for her meat. Her only choice is to set up residence on Duba Island, but to get there she has to cross a crocodile infested river with her little cubs swimming along behind her. Her new home comes with its own set of problems—there is little for her to hunt besides a large herd of buffalo, those massive beasts are as much a threat to her as she is to them, and there is the threat of floods during the rainy season.
There is a touch of humor in hearing The Lion King's Scar, Jeremy Irons (a frequent Joubert collaborator) narrate this story of the big cats, but the narration becomes precious when Ma di Tau's actions are too often described in human terms. It is a touch that is not even necessary. The lions' story without those flourishes is fascinating enough as it describes an intelligent animal that goes against many traits naturalists ascribe to the species' in a bid to ensure her survival and that of her young. The anthropomorphism employed in the voiceover is hardly necessary. The danger facing these beautiful animals is only too plain.
Other aspects of the narration are better, especially those that emphasize this lioness' adaptation to her circumstances. Some of the images are stunning, especially an early night scene that captures a vastly outnumbered Ma di Tau fighting the invading pride. Joubert and his wife, wildlife photographer Beverly Joubert, have lived on Duba Island for seven years. Their familiarity with the cats, buffalo, hyenas and other creatures that make the region their home is evident as is their distress over the dwindling lion population. The film and its companion book by the Jouberts are a plea to reverse that trend, the stakes made concrete by this one lion standing in for the 20,000.
Distributor: National Geographic Entertainment
Director: Dereck Joubert
Producer: Beverly Joubert, Dereck Joubert, Lisa Truitt and Chris Miller
Rating: PG for some violent images involving animal life.
Running time: 88 min
Release date: February 18 ltd.