Name ID 4
van Lawick, Hugo Leopards Son
Extract Author: James Berardinelli
Extract Date: 1996
The Leopard Son
A Film Review by James Berardinelli
United States, 1996
U.S. Release Date: 9/27/96 (limited)
Running Length: 1:25
MPAA Classification: G
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Narrator: John Gielgud
Director: Hugo Van Lawick
Producers: Hugo van Lawick and Tim Cowling
Written by: Michael Olmert
Cinematography: Hugo van Lawick and Matthew Aeberhard
Music: Stewart Copeland
U.S. Distributor: Discovery Channel Pictures
Cable TV channel involvement in the motion picture industry is nothing new. HBO and Showtime have been financing movies for years. However, in 1996, other cable networks have begun to stake out their piece of the action. Nickelodeon made the Paramount Pictures release, Harriet the Spy, MTV produced Joe's Apartment, and now the Discovery Channel has come out with The Leopard Son, a beautifully-photographed, thoroughly charming documentary about the coming of age of a male leopard on the plains of the Serengeti.
Even frequent viewers of made-for-TV nature specials won't be fully prepared for the majesty of The Leopard Son. This is a singularly cinematic experience that will lose much when cropped for television viewing. And, because the cinematography is by far the most important aspect of this movie, the high aptitude level evidenced by directors of photography Hugo van Lawick and Matthew Aeberhard makes this a rewarding motion picture experience.
van Lawick is a Dutch photographer and naturalist who has spent most of his adult life living on the plains of the Serengeti. In his own words, "To be as close as possible to nature as I could -- that was my dream." The Leopard Son is his filmed journal of two years in the life of a young male leopard. van Lawick's camera first captures the cub when he's only a few weeks old, then follows him through youth and adolescence to adulthood. Along the way, we observe his relationship with his mother, his first attempts at hunting his own meals, and the harsh lessons that identify his place in the food chain. And, in a film which has a leopard as the central character, there are supporting appearances by all manner of other African wildlife, including baboons, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, rhinos, cheetahs, and lions. Some children may rightfully see this as a kind of live action Lion King.
What's unusual about The Leopard Son is that it's a nature film with characters and a plot. We are drawn into the drama of the title creature's life, and find ourselves rooting for him to hunt down a meal, rediscover his mother, make peace with his half-siblings, and, in the end, find a mate. As in any well-constructed motion picture, there's humor, pathos, passion, and danger. Unfortunately, however, we are subjected to an irritatingly repetitive and superfluous voiceover provided by Sir John Gielgud. This would have been a better film without it. The Leopard Son is so well-crafted visually that it doesn't need a narrator.
van Lawick is discreet when it comes to showing the brutal consequences of being inattentive on the Serengeti, but even his carefully-edited shots of death have power. As a whole, The Leopard Son is a long string of memorable images -- a twitching tail sticking above breeze- blown grasses, golden sunlight streaming through broken clouds, a misty, pastel dawn, a leopard silhouetted by the setting sun. Depending on the circumstances, the photography can be intimate or panoramic. There are nearly as many shots of the leopard's eyes as there are broad, sweeping views of the plains.
While The Leopard Son doesn't match Jean-Jacques Annaud's 1988 feature, The Bear, for creativity and emotional power, it is still the best wildlife drama to reach theater screens in years. Even those who find Gielgud's voiceover intrusive will be so captivated by the visual splendor that they're unlikely to complain. Despite its low-key, limited release, The Leopard Son is a family gem that's worth seeking out... even if you don't have a family.
© 1996 James Berardinelli
Extract Date: 1998
Leopards Son: an ambitious though financially unsuccessful effort to move natural history film into movie theaters.
Aeberhard, Matthew was a cameraman who worked with Hugo on Serengeti Symphony