An ambitious if modestly budgeted family-friendly animal adventure shot on location at South African safari parks and game reserves, "White Lion" opened Friday in Memphis, Louisville and St. Louis.
The film's novice producers -- including veteran movie-and-TV lion-wrangler Kevin Richardson -- obviously hope young animal lovers will turn out in force so their feature can expand from its mid-size test markets into the larger urban jungles of Chicago, New York and beyond. One wonders, however, whether this nicely photographed carnivore yarn has enough teeth to entice fans away from the free beastly behavior available daily on Animal Planet and the National Geographic Channel.
Story-wise, "White Lion" suggests a cross between such old-school Disney nature yarns as "Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar" and one of the annual Kwanzaa faux folk tales presented in the "Curtis" comic strip.
The film opens at a "bush school" in South Africa, where a twinkle-eyed graybeard (Bonsile John Kani) tells an apparently rapt group of black and white children the story of Letstatsi, a rare white lion.
Initially an adorable cub, Letstatsi is revered by the members of the Shangaan tribe for his distinctive coat, but ostracized by his fellow cats because of that same otherness. (It does seem somewhat odd that this Africa-set tale suggests that whiteness -- the "color of the stars" -- confers "sacred" status, even if only when applied to lions.)
As the exiled Lestatsi matures, learning to hunt and becoming a proud sort of lion king, he is stalked by a pair of white hunters and followed by a self-appointed protector (Thabo Malema), a Shangaan youth.
The director, Michael Swan, also is the film's cinematographer, and his shots of the African landscape and its inhabitants ensure that "White Lion" -- awkwardly subtitled "Home ... is a Journey" -- always is pleasant to look at, even when Letstatsi is gnawing on a carcass. Actually, there were plenty of Letstatsis available to chew a gnu or two: The end credits report that 24 white lions (with such monikers as Gandalf, Thor and Simba) were used in the film, along with 48 less-novel tawny lions.
The supporting cast includes a cobra, a giraffe, a cheetah, elephants, hyenas and crocodiles. Of course, even more animal species can be found at the Memphis Zoo, which has been enlisted to help promote the film: Through October, anyone who adopts a "Cat Country" denizen through the zoo's Adopt-an-Animal program will receive a plush white lion.
"White Lion" is exclusively at Malco's Cordova Cinema.
-- John Beifuss: 529-2394