White Lion is a magnificently lensed coming-of-age film that follows the titular white lion from cub to king. A 25-year labor of love from producer Kevin Richardson, who was also the lead animal wrangler, and director Michael Swan, the Screen Media Films release features cinematography that ranges from awe-inspiring panoramas of flat-topped mountains rising out of densely verdant valleys to closer shots of dew-dropped flowers glistening in the moonlight.
The lion’s saga is related as a narration by an African storyteller (veteran actor John Kani) holding his audience of children in thrall around a campfire. While we return to the campfire from time to time to connect with the children and their reactions, the camera cuts away to what is essentially a nature film of the unfolding story: A white cub, Letsatsi, is born into a lion pride. Playful as any kitten, he has some close calls with hyenas and venomous snakes as romps in the tall grass. And just being different from a lion’s usual tawny color causes challenges for him with the other lions in his pride. He slowly learns the skills he needs to survive the natural perils of the wilderness – lightning-sparked fires, hidden dangers such as alligators in the river from which he must get water to drink – as well as meeting the basic need to find food. Humans pose yet another danger.
Giving a framework for the story of Letsatsi’s life is a secondary story of Gisani, a native villager who has been raised with the traditional legends that revere the rare white lion as a messenger of the gods that brings peace and prosperity. Gisani is little more than a child when he first sees Letsatsi, and he takes on himself the responsibility for watching over the lion through the years, to be his storyteller. This culminates in a showdown with hunters who see value in Letsatsi only as a trophy.
As a nature film, White Lion is true to the genre in its honest depiction of the animals’ lives. Kills are acknowledged, although the camera takes a respectful view and avoids grisly sensationalism. Nor are there groomed manes or other attempts to prettify the animals. Life includes moments of heart-pounding adventure punctuating long days of quieter existence, and the film’s slow pace – with music as a low-key accompaniment – seems to capture life in real time.
The DVD’s bonus feature on how the wranglers worked with the lions to capture authentic actions is a livelier piece, and the behind-the-scenes views add to rather than detract from an appreciation of the feature film.