What’s remarkable about this movie is that it could have taken place 10 years ago, 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago, and you can’t tell the difference. It’s just that timeless (other than the narrative voice of Morgan Freeman). A pride of lions on the south side of the river is presided over by Fang, the patriarch, whose broken bottom tooth is both a badge of courage and a sign of how difficult it is to stay on top. His lionesses are happily raising his cubs, and all is well until the bad boys from the north side of the river brave the crocodiles and attack him. The papa lion and his oldest son are at first driven off with the help of the females, but he returns, later, with all three of his grown sons, and Fang just slinks off into the bush, never to be seen again. One of the females got lost in the melee, but she soon finds her way back, and is welcomed playfully by the other “wives” in the harem, who soon produce a new litter of cubs from the new king of the jungle. The oldest female, however, is both injured and banished, and, as the deposed queen, is not going to survive in isolation. She does, however, stay long enough to insure that her cub will be raised by her sister.
Meanwhile, a female cheetah tries to raise her five cubs by herself, but is attacked by a pack of wild hyenas and loses two of her cubs in the battle. She escapes with her other three and manages to raise them up without further incident – although the cubs do have to learn that you don’t mess with an ostrich, and you don’t tease a water buffalo. And speed is as useful for stalking as it is for escape. What’s strange is to see an elephant intervene, once, to stop some bullying from the lions. Elephants as peacemakers?
There are no humans anywhere in sight. (We don’t even see shadows of people holding cameras.) There are no signs of civilization—no telephone wires, no streets, no houses, no automobiles, no aluminum cans, no candy wrappers. Just the natural purity of the vast, teeming plains and the wild animals who live there. When the colossal thunderstorms arise – and they will – the animals just have to lie under some bush and wait it out. You can even see them wet and shivering. The gazelles and zebras are the prey – but there seem to be so many thousands of them in thundering herds that you almost feel like the remorseless predators are only weeding out the dumbest and slowest, and in an ironic Darwinian way, improving the quality of the herd.
It’s also interesting to observe that the mother cheetah, once her job of raising her cubs is done, then leaves them to live alone. The lions, however, always seek to be together, in the safety and affability of their social group. Yes, there are loners and joiners, even in the animal kingdom, and maybe we good church folks can take a lesson from this, and stop beating ourselves up over the people who don’t want to join us. Maybe it’s not in their DNA. Maybe God didn’t make them that way!
Some of the smaller children in the theater were clearly bored, and even the older ones were somewhat startled by the fresh blood dripping from the fangs. But this is how those African cats have been living since…well, long before Morgan Freeman played God.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas