Movie Review “Mia and the White Lion” has claws, but little bite

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If “Dumbo” taught us nothing else, it’s that if you’re going to make a movie with children interacting with animals, you need real animals for that to connect with an audience.

So if you’re making a movie about a girl who grows up to be great friends with a lion — a “white” lion, mind you — you’d better tie down a lot of time in the child actor’s schedule. And you’d best have a white lion handy that you can follow and bond with from oversized kitten to King of the Veldt.

“Mia and the White Lion” has that going for it, a three years-in-the-making Franco-South African production which paired up a child — played by Daniah de Villiers — with a lion cub for a story of family, the bond between humans and animals and the harsh reality that a lot of “rescue” work for orphan wildlife is just a business.

The “years-in-the-making” is both a tribute to the filmmakers’ perseverance, and an explanation for how choppy, jerky and repetitive “White Lion” is. Performances can’t find a rhythm and the melodramatic narrative suffers for it.

How many times can Dad say, “He’s not a bloody pet!” before the actor (Langley Kirkwood) is entitled to yell, “Can we get a rewrite, here?” When you’re piecing together a movie over years, bending your script to fit the reality of the growing cat’s personality and the maturing of your leading lady (de Villiers), and working with a large and potentially dangerous creature we are constantly reminded is “still a wild animal,” you’re constantly shooting at a moving target.

“Mia” is the story of a London family — South African husband, French wife (Mélanie Laurent) and their two kids (de Villiers, and Ryan Mac Lennan) — who move back to the husband’s family farm in rural South Africa.

His dad’s business was rescuing, raising and breeding lions and other wildlife for zoos, circuses and most controversially, preserves and other operations where big game hunters like that creep who owns a U.S. sandwich shop franchise can bag their trophy animal.

John constantly reminds us he’s not going to do with his forbears did. He’s given to griping about losing money on the farm, even as we can’t help but notice the Land Rovers, Jeeps and scooters he’s able to afford as they prep their two story farmhouse and grounds for a planned transition to a wilderness preserve bed and breakfast.

The animal that can make or break that business is the miraculous white lion born there, one connected to tribal legend. Mia, whom we meet at age 11, is slow to bond with the cub, named Charlie. But she warms up and gives up on her shallow London Facetime friends to become Charlie’s constant companion.

Older brother Mick (Mac Lennan) was traumatized by the move, has nightmares and is skittish around the kittenish cub.

The kid-friendliest moments of Gilles de Maistre’s film are Charlie’s bull-in-a-china-shop life in their house, knocking stuff over, roughhousing, cleaning the dinner table before anybody else has a chance to eat.

Young de Villiers shows a lot of brass, first scene to last, in interacting with something her on-screen parents constantly remind her is “a wild animal. And a wild animal’s a wild animal.”

The viewer can fixate, quite understandably, on everything that can go wrong. And even though this film has the kids talk to the animals (an elephant, for instance), giving them instructions which they apparently abide, de Maistre doesn’t shy away from showing us the very real dangers involved.

A growing lion won’t realize his strength, how lethal his teeth can be as he affectionately mouths his human pal, how damaging those claws can be, just by accident. The aftermath of a lion-mauling is shown.

Keeping Mia away from Charlie as he reaches young adulthood proves easier said than done. One can only hope she’ll learn the rules, “Never let yourself be below a lion. Never look a lion in the eye,” etc.

 

The best special effect here is the semi-trained lion, who knocks over furniture, gnaws on lamps and looks at Mia with what we can assume are big loving blue-grey eyes. Charlie proves to have some personality, even if the implicit menace is never quite out of the picture.

The human acting is, for the most part, indifferent, with even the polished Laurent (“Inglorious Basterds,””Beginners,” “Night Train to Lisbon”) underwhelming owing to the lack of big emotional moments in the script.

The tale takes nothing but predictable turns, considering how this farm operates and Mia’s growing connection with her “best friend.”

I was pretty forgiving of all this dry-eyed (meant to be a weeper) kid-friendly content until that moment when teen Mia points a gun at her father.

That’s jarring enough to take one right out of a movie that wasn’t exactly magnetic in pulling us in.

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MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements, peril and some language

Cast: Daniah De Villiers, Mélanie Laurent, Langley Kirkwood, Ryan Mac Lennan and Brandon Auret

Credits: Directed by Gilles de Maistre, script by Prune de Maistre and William Davies. A StudioCanal release.

Running time: 1:38

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