April 9, 2019 Mia and the White Lion (Movie Review)
Who could hate a friendly lion? If anything, there are people online who like them too much. Lion-fans are spoilt for choice when it comes to big cat stories. There are films about real ones, 1966’s Born Free 1966, animated ones, 1994’s The Lion King, and fur-suited ones, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
Due in theaters Friday, April 12th through Ledafilms Entertainment Group, Mia & the White Lion adds one more to the collection. The work of Director Gilles de Maistre (Killer Kid 1994, Le Premier Cri 2007), and Writers Prune de Maistre and William Davies (Flushed Away 2006, How to Train Your Dragon 2010), the story promises a humble tale of friendship between a young girl and a white lion. Hence the title.
The film is about Mia Owen (Daniah De Villiers: Vaselinetije 2017, The Dating Game Killer 2017), a 10-year-old girl whose life gets upended when her parents take her away from her life in London to the South African Savannah to run a lion farm. There is a bright spot when a white lion cub called Charlie is born. The two become inseparable for the next 3 years, until she discovers her father (Langley Kirkwood: Dredd 2012, The Catch 2017) has kept a secret that could put the lion’s life in danger. She escapes with Charlie and goes looking for a lion sanctuary for him. Will they find it in time? Or is their friendship doomed?
It sounds rather twee, like something Disney could have made in the ’70s. Or the ’90s if they gave a lion a baseball cap and a skateboard. But there is no harm in being sweet. It just depends on how much sugar they packed into this film. Is it a sweet tea, or a diabetes risk?
Whatever the amount is, it comes in the form of a choux bun than a tall soda. Despite the Savannah setting, the film has a very European flavor. Perhaps it is in its origins, with the French de Maistres creating the film with backing from Studio Canal. Or perhaps it is in the cast, where South African-born actors like de Villiers and Kirkwood meet Europeans like Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds 2009, Beginners 2010).
That or it is simply down to the largely white cast in a largely black country having a slightly more noticeable edge than its American counterparts. The Mouse House probably would not show Simba drawing blood from a human (albeit off-camera) or have a child use ‘bloody’ as a curse word. The film does not aim to treat Charlie as a jolly pet, but as an actual animal. How should animals best be treated? That serves as the crux of the drama between Mia, who treats Charlie as a pet, and her dad, who sees him as just an animal.
Not that it is some live-action, lion-based equivalent of 1978’s Watership Down. There are plenty of cutesy, animal-based hijinks on display, be it a helpful elephant or a cheeky meerkat. They just sprinkle a little salt on the proceedings with the perils of treating a lion as a pet, and the father’s secret. All nastier instances of violence are kept off-screen and left to suggestion through cuts and reactions. So, it is more PG than the PG Watership Down got back in the day.
Which leads to the acting, which is overall pretty good. De Villiers shows good chemistry with Charlie, showing a convincing progression of bonding with the lion. She also fares well with her on-screen family, particularly the conflict with her ‘dad’ in Kirkwood. Laurent is okay, though her performance gets stronger towards the film’s second half, when the emotional stakes are higher.
There is also Brandon Auret (District 9 2009, Chappie 2015) who plays the villainous Dirk with glee. That is not to say he is cartoonishly evil, but he plays the character sly and slimy enough for his motivations to be clear. Sharper-eyed viewers may pick up on them the moment he arrives on-screen. Otherwise they will have to wait for the film to reveal its secrets. This is not that the film’s animal rights message is particularly subtle. De Villiers and Kirkwood’s characters lay it out in dialogue, where it is quite blunt. Yet, it is woven into the plot well enough to avoid sounding too unnatural. Though it does work better when it is delivered through the story than with words. It is direct enough to be noticed without feeling like a lecture.
That sums up Mia and the White Lion rather well in the end. It does not offer the most complex take on the ethics of handling wildlife. It is a family feature after all. Though it is not a sickly-sweet adventure either, it sits right in the middle between harsh reality and Disney-esque cheer. Sweet enough to entertain the kids, but dramatic enough to get their heart rates going. A fair film for budding animal conservationists, Cryptic Rock gives Mia and the White Lion 3.5 out of 5 stars.