'Leopard Son' Offers Rare Glimpse Into Life on Africa's Serengeti Plain

Discovery Channel's first theatrical release is wholesome family fare

Everyone from concerned parents to the American Medical Association is making a justified fuss over continued violence in movies and television, and the entertainment industry appears to be responding in a sluggish but genuine way.

Violent films already in the production pipeline will keep slouching toward our neighborhood multiplexes, and it's unlikely any known force will be able to stop them. But a recent spate of movies about family-friendly subjects is supplying a counterbalance to the R-rated mayhem, providing alternatives for viewers who enjoy wholesome fare and haven't yet written Hollywood off altogether.

Pictures about animals are currently leading the trend. The picturesque "Fly Away Home," with Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin guiding a flock of geese to their new migratory home, has just opened in theaters. Soon to come is "Microcosmos," a look at the insect world through the lens of microphotography.

And now the respected Discovery Channel is throwing its considerable prestige - and financial weight - into the effort, releasing a G-rated documentary called "The Leopard Son" as its first picture made expressly for the large theatrical screen.

There's a certain irony to the idea of nature movies taking the lead in family entertainment, since violence is hardly a scarce commodity in the wilderness, where life is often nasty, brutish, and short. Hollywood has a long history of sanitizing the natural realm for civilized consumption, however - Disney documentaries like "The Living Desert" set the standard for this back in the 1950s - and "The Leopard Son" follows squarely in that tradition, erring on the side of caution when it comes to hunting, mating, and other areas of basic biology.

This doesn't mean the picture is suitable for every child, since scenes of killing and feeding may be too strong for some, and there's also poignant material about death and loneliness in the animal kingdom. But it's all tactfully handled, providing a relatively tame introduction to life on the East African plains.

As the title indicates, the main character of "The Leopard Son" is a young leopard whom filmmaker Hugo van Lawick discovered in Tanzania's huge Serengeti National Park, where he'd been searching for such a "star" to follow, study, and photograph as it grew from infancy to young adulthood.

The other main character is Van Lawick himself, whose personal observations - spoken by the great English actor John Gielgud, the film's narrator - guide us through the action and explain what's going on every step of the way. While it's interesting to hear Van Lawick's account, his words eventually become the movie's weakest link, since they impose a distinctly human viewpoint on what should be an authentically nonhuman set of experiences.

In the end, "The Leopard Son" deserves high marks for its stunning photography and painstakingly captured images of scenes that few of us will ever get to see for ourselves, all accompanied by a serviceable music score from Stewart Copeland, former drummer for the '80s rock group called the Police.

But the picture gets low marks for its anthropocentric approach, especially in its second half, when the narration ascribes a long series of typically human thoughts to creatures whose actual minds surely work in very different ways. A movie that tried to show animals as they see themselves, using the resources of filmmaking to transcend rather than reinforce the human perspective, would be a far greater adventure than the makers of "The Leopard Son" have given us.

*'The Leopard Son' has a G rating. It contains some scenes of hunting, feeding, and predatory behavior, as well as material dealing with loneliness and death in the animal world.

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