Director: Michael Swan | 90 minutes | family | Actors: Jamie Bartlett, John Kani, Thabo Malema
What Nicholas Evans described in “The Horse Whisperer” (later made into a film with Kristen Scott Thomas, Robert Redford and then 14-year-old Scarlett Johansson) seems to have started a storm of “animal whisperers.” All over the world, animal experts are popping up who have studied the behavior of certain species so well that they label themselves as “whisperer.” Kevin Richardson, who grew up in Orange Grove, South Africa, can without a doubt call himself one of the most special whisperers among the whisperers: he regularly cuddles with lions!
Richardson’s years of experience with these wild animals have allowed him to amass breathtaking images for his debut as a feature film producer. “White Lion” is therefore a well-maintained film. The use of nature shots, particularly of animals, to make such a feature film is not a new phenomenon (think for example of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1988 ‘L’ours’). Nowadays it is a popular means of telling a story. Certainly in the new millennium, more and more variations seem to be appearing in the cinema, such as “African Bambi” (2007), “Pluk the little beaver” (2008) or “Turtle, an Incredible Journey” (2009). “White Lion” did not receive a cinema release in the Netherlands (the film did screen during Cinekid). Although the images of the African savannah and the animals that live there are very beautiful, there is something wrong with the implementation. It is therefore understandable that the film appears directly on DVD.
A teacher sits outside with his students. The children are ready for a story that he is going to tell them. It is the story of the legend of the white lion. Decades ago, a pride of lions lived in the Lebombo valley. Father Mogolo and Mother Misawa had two cubs: the “normal” Buti and the white Letsatsi. Despite his different coat color, Misawa was fond of her son and she tried to raise the two as well as possible, which was not easy in the sometimes harsh nature. At the same time, the young boy Gisani in his tribe is told about the legend of the white lion: adopted they become the messengers of God. Their fur would turn white because a star has descended. When Gisani finds Letsatsi, who has been separated from his mother, he sets out to protect the sacred animal for the rest of his life. What follows are a number of shots in which we follow the growing lion on its way to adulthood. As a white lion it is not easy for him, because he is rejected by his troop and cannot hunt yet. To stay alive, he has to find a connection and that is not easy. Meanwhile, Gisani has grown up too: he follows Letsatsi through the African landscape and joins a hunter to prevent “his” lion from being killed.
The fact that the clichéd story does not appeal to the viewer is mainly due to the structure Richardson has given his film. A framework narration like this creates a distance between the images and the viewer. The teacher’s voice-over (played by John Kani) gets on your nerves and the handful of scenes with the supposedly hanging on his lips hardly add anything. We do not know who they are and the way in which they are involved in the story (asking questions at strategic times, grasping each other’s hands at a tense moment) seems mostly forced. Thabo Malema, the actor who plays the young Gisani, is also given little more to do than follow in Letsatsi’s footsteps and look around every now and then. Perhaps the younger viewers will not be bothered by it, but this arouses irritation among adult film fans. They will get the most enjoyment out of “White Lion” with the volume knob down, although they will miss the beautiful music of Philip Miller.
Incidentally, in the wild, white lions are not a natural phenomenon at all: white lions (and other feline predators) are only born when crossbreeding takes place between brother and sister, father and daughter or mother and son. These animals are bred like this, for example for zoos or for hunting. It is a pity that “White Lion” gets over this shocking fact, although the message is of course that hunting these formidable animals (regardless of the color of their fur) is out of the question …