White Lion

Director: Michael Swan
Jamie Bartlett, John Kani, Thabo Malema

Way back in the mid 1970s when the classic British sitcom Fawlty Towers first aired, there was an episode when the character of Basil Fawlty (played by the great John Cleese) was in one of his many struggles with the hotel he owned. In that particular moment, he said something like, "I could do a great job if it weren't for all of these guests!" He didn't think at the moment of the obvious consequences if his wish could come true, but at the same time, I could relate to his struggle. When you are responsible for controlling a lot of people, often a bunch of problems can come up. This is especially true when the role you are playing is a film director or producer. Actors can be a true pain in the you know what, whether it's with their demands for scripts to be changed (usually for the worse), or asking what their "motivation" is for their characters. They can be so hard to work with, it's no wonder why many film directors and producers dream of the day they can simply push a button, and a computer will do all the hard work for them, without the need to cast or control a single actor. Well, we haven't got to that day yet, though I think it eventually could happen once artifical intelligence is improved significantly (though yeah, the invention of that could very well generate a whole bunch of new and original problems for film directors and producers.) But ever since the invention of cinema more than one hundred years ago, film directors and producers have been thinking of ways on occasion to cut out the required task of having to deal with actor mostly or even completely.

I don't think most readers will be without any kind of idea how this can be done, but to make sure, I will talk a bit about "artificial actors". This can be done in several different ways. For example, the movie The Dark Crystal used puppets throughout, and these puppets just needed easy to control puppeteers and a no-name group of human voice artists to make them speak. The most common kind of "artificial actor", however, is with animation, either hand drawn animation or computer-generated animation. The animated characters just need artists, a director, and easy to control voice artists. But there is another kind of actor some filmmakers have used in movies that while not artificial, is also at the same time not human. And that is with animal performances. I don't think I have to give any examples of that, since you have surely seen many movies with animal performers. Anyway, you can probably guess why for some filmmakers, using an animal as an actor may have a lot of appeal. For one thing, they often can be a lot cheaper to hire than a human actor. Most animal actors can't speak at all, so it's highly unlikely there would be any arguments on the set. But when you think about it, you can see there are potential problems with animal actors that you won't get with human actors. Face it, though animals can do some amazing things, the hard truth is that they are not as smart as humans. You have to often train them over and over to do a task instead of simply asking them once to do whatever you want. Also, some animals can't be fully tamed, making them not fully predictable even if they have had much exposure to humans. They could suddenly revert to their wild ways, and hurt humans or even themselves. (Research the 1981 movie Roar to learn about a film production that was especially problematic in large part due to its wild animal cast.)

It's then no wonder that nowadays, many filmmakers who want to depict animals on screen will often portray them partially or fully with computer generated graphics. It can save a lot of onscreen headaches, and you don't have to worry about animals or human actors getting hurt. White LionStill, while I understand it's easier for filmmakers, I prefer filmmakers who go the extra mile and use real animals. As of this date, real animals still look much better and more convincing than CGI creations. Also, you can really see and feel the effort the filmmakers went to in order to make the full-blooded beasts act onscreen in a convincing manner. That's why I was attracted to White Lion when I found a copy of it in a dollar store, with it having real animals and not promising any real manipulation. As well, the fact that it was a South African film (and had won some local awards) promised that it would have some interesting things in it not found in a typical Hollywood production. The title animal is the main character of White Lion, and has the name of Letsatsi. When the movie begins, Letsatsi is a young cub in the wilds of Africa who is albino, and because of his white condition is revered by the local human Shangaan tribespeople, specifically one boy by the name of Gisani (actor Thabo Malema) who thinks it's his destiny to look over Letsatsi. However, Letsatsi's fellow lions in the pack don't think enough of him, and they abandon him after a pair of outsider male lions kill his father and take over the pride. Banished, Letsatsi's travels eventually have him meet a loner lion by the name of Nkulu. With the aid of Nkulu, Letsatsi is saved from death, and eventually grows into an adult lion. As a fully-grown lion, Letsatsi feels it's his destiny to become a lead lion. However, he is in danger of being killed by a human big game hunter who wants Letsatsi's precious and rare white pelt.

I feel that what I should first mention was that the copy of White Lion I found at a dollar store was a Blu-ray copy, so I knew I would be seeing my home viewing of it in the best way currently possible. And as you might expect, the movie on its Blu-ray edition often looks wonderful. It is generally very well photographed, with sharp detailing and colors that often seem to pop out of the screen. Director Michael Swan (who, as it turns out, was also the cinematographer) also picked out many spectacular South African locations to shoot on, and making them look even more spectacular by throwing in some impressive shots made from drones or helicopters high in the air. However, the rest of his direction is not as impressive. The scenes of animals fighting or involved in some other type of action often have rapid editing and the camera extremely close to the participants, making these moments sometimes hard to follow. As it turns out, Swan also for the most part directs his animal and human cast quite close up; I would have appreciated seeing a bit more of the surroundings so I would have been able to absorb the environment. But those directorial issues I mentioned before kind of pale compared to the biggest objection I had with Swan's direction. For the most part, there is a real soft feeling scene after scene. When Letsatsi is born, it's portrayed in a matter-of-fact manner, with no feeling of awe or wonder. Shortly after, when newborn Letsatsi gets close to a pack of hyenas, there is no feeling of danger, instead just a casual atmosphere. Later, when Letsatsi's brother is killed and not long afterwards his father, it just happens feebly in front of us. This feeling that Swan was afraid of putting serious bite in the movie continues from this point for the rest of the running time, no matter what is happening on screen at a particular moment.

The feeling that some potential big punches are being held back in White Lion don't just extend to Swan's directorial style, but also with the way the animal and the human characters are portrayed by the screenplay (which Swan had a hand in writing.) Since the animals are the main players, I'll start by taking a look at them. To its credit, the screenplay didn't have the animals talking "hip" via the assistance of CGI to their mouths, nor did it have multiple voice actors just dubbing "hip" voiceovers over the soundtrack when the animals are up front and center. Instead, the movie's narrator (a grown-up Gisani) tells us what the animals are feeling or planning to do. But this narration combined with the animal footage simply doesn't make the animal characters strong enough. We don't really get to know their thought processes well, and their motivations often seem murky. For example, why does a fully grown Letsatsi suddenly decide to take leadership of a pride? We never know that, or the answer to many other character questions. As it turns out, the incidental human characters are equally underwritten. Until the last twenty or so minutes of the running time, the humans in the main plot thread hardly get a chance to say a word. Again, the movie depends on narration to try and make the human characters have some personality, but many questions such as why exactly a young Gisani suddenly decides to become Letsatsi's protector, what exactly Gisani's tribe thinks of the sudden appearance of a white lion, or why the movie's hunter character Richards (Jamie Bartlett, American Ninja 2), having pursued the white lion for such a long time, decides upon getting very close to it to... well, you can probably guess what he does, which just makes his character even more mysterious and poorly written.

It's not just the characters, animal or human, in White Lion that are inadequately written, but also the movie's story as well. Several paragraphs ago, where I gave a brief plot description for the movie, you probably got a whiff of the Disney movie The Lion King. As it turns out, the whiff is actually stronger than a wildebeest carcass rotting for several days on the savannah. Letsatsi is born heir to a pride, he encounters hyenas when growing up, his father is killed during a coup in the pride, he then flees into the wilderness where he joins up with an outsider, he grows up and then decides to be king... see what I mean about things not being terribly original? Oh, the movie does throw in some token new elements like Gisani and the hunter, but not only are those particular plot threads pretty predictable, they suffer from the same basic problem with almost all the other plot threads. That problem being that the story unfolds in a very slow and boring manner. For example, there are an endless number of moments that add nothing to the plot, such as with Letsatsi encountering various animals either weak or strong for lengthy periods of time. All this just screams "padding!", and viewers will quickly get restless and shout at the movie to simply get on with it. I feel I should also mention that the movie is set in South Africa in 1951, but simply does not mention the apartheid that was happening in the country at the time, and this glossing over may raise the ire of some very sensitive viewers. Very young child viewers (at least those who are also very patient) may not object to that issue or the other issues this adult viewer had of the movie, but I can't see anyone else, except maybe for cinematographers, particularly enjoying White Lion.

(Posted September 26, 2023)

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See also: Animals Are Beautiful People, The Golden Seal, Two Bits & Pepper