Mia and the White Lion Image

A young girl from London moves to Africa with her parents where she befriends a lion cub.

I can almost hear the resounding “uh-oh” emitted by animal lovers once they read the logline for Mia and the White Lion. Cinematic tales of human-animal bonding – from Old Yeller and Skip to Marley and Hachi – don’t tend to end well. Granted, those traumatic films deal with canine bonding, while director Gilles de Maistre’s family tale focuses on a girl’s friendship with a feline, a gorgeous white lion cub she calls Charlie. Whether his film ends on a similarly grave note, I’ll let you discover.

I will, however, state that while it contains some relatively graphic scenes, Mia and the White Lion is entirely suitable for older children – which does not excuse its overt politicizing (however laudable the message may be) and Lifetime-like dialogue. Thankfully, it’s redeemed by a charismatic, fearless central performance, as well as the sight of some of the most graceful creatures that roam this planet in increasingly diminishing numbers.

Mia has trouble fitting in and making friends, until one Christmas morning, a white lion cub is born…”

Rebellious troublemaker Mia (Daniah De Villiers) loves heavy metal and getting into fights. Having recently relocated from London, she lives with her mom Alice (Mélanie Laurent), dad John (Langley Kirkwood) and older brother Mick (Ryan Mac Lennan) on an African farm. The place is filled with hippos, ostriches, zebras, elephants, giraffes – and lions, whom John sells to “other breeders,” so he could make enough money to turn the place into a tourist attraction. Mia has trouble fitting in and making friends, until one Christmas morning, a white lion cub is born, “a million-to-one chance miracle.”

Rejecting Charlie at first, Mia’s soon won over by his cuteness, taking selfies and playing together. Alice and John grow concerned that Mia and Charlie are “getting too close.” “A wild animal’s a wild animal,” dad warns daughter about the perils of feline adolescence, “and you can never change that, no matter what you do.” When they try to take Charlie away, he refuses to eat and gets into fights, mirroring Mia’s behavior upon relocation – so they’re reunited, much to Mia’s joy.

Soon enough, a three-year-old Charlie almost kills a family member. John makes the decision to sell him to a bunch of ruthless hunters, led by the uber-sleazy Dirk (Brandon Auret). Seeing no other way, Mia and Charlie make a run for it to a remote animal reservation, first by foot, then by car, then by foot again, as her parents – and what seems like the region’s entire police force – chase them through African landscapes.

“…deals with overcoming homesickness and important messages of wildlife preservation…”

Speaking of, the film is beautifully shot, DoP Brandan Barnes capturing stunning locations in their full, gold-tinted glory. Daniah De Villiers not only convincingly portrays a relatable, spunky young woman, but she’s also startlingly natural in breathtaking scenes involving her being “playfully” leaped on by a grown-up Charlie; or just the two frolicking around, her face one swipe of a gargantuan paw away from being ripped off entirely. A particularly impressive, though far-fetched, scene sees Mia and Charlie make their way through a populated shopping district. The blue-eyed lions, each portraying Charlie at a different stage in his life, are the stars of the show; it’s also just refreshing to see real animals, as opposed to pixels.

Langley Kirkwood plays John as irredeemably evil, at least until the end, where his redemption feels undeserved. Mélanie Laurent, still best known in the US for her role as Shosanna in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, does her best to balance his abhorrent behavior with her inherent gentleness, but it takes Mia’s tranquilizer gun to ultimately bring John down. Gilles de Maistre embraces sap: a soundtrack accompanies lengthy interludes so granola, you’ll probably feel like you’ve had a full breakfast afterward. “I know you’re dangerous,” Mia earnestly says to a lion, “but would you really kill someone you love? Please answer me!” Also, as a side-note, Owens’ maid, Jodie (Lillian Dube), a source of continuous awkward comic relief to the blisteringly white family, straddles the fine line of racial stereotyping.

Mia and the Lion deals with overcoming homesickness and important messages of wildlife preservation –  praiseworthy themes, bound to resonate with kids. They are unfortunately spelled out by characters who are either “good” or “bad.” Good-looking but predictable and schlocky, Mia and the White Lion is ultimately saved from slaughter by its two plucky heroes.

Mia and the White Lion (2019) Directed by Gilles de Maistre. Starring Daniah De Villiers, Mélanie Laurent, Langley Kirkwood.

6 out of 10

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  1. Caroline Fox says:

    I was hoing to watch this movie however after reading your review I quickly changed my mind. I had no idea that this was occurring during the filming of this movie. It opened my eyes at this awful treatment of these beautiful animals. When will people understand these are wild animals. It’s really unforunate that’s it’s all about money and these animals have to suffer for these people’s greed and total disregard for these innocent animals. Thanks for your honest and informative review

  2. Where is the real Charlie at now

  3. Artemis Grey says:

    This movie is not beautiful, nor does it aid conservation, or teach viewers anything about respecting lions or other wild animals. The lions you see here were bought from a captive lion breeding farm solely for the purpose of making this movie. Casting calls were held at Ukutula Lion Farm, which breeds hundreds of lion cubs each year, removes them from their mothers (just like Mia’s father removes Charlie from his and give him to Mia) and then allows tourists to play with them. Older lions are used for lion walking, and then sold to other breeding farms or into the canned hunting industry. Gilles de Maistre and Kevin Richardson knew this, and still used Ukutula for casting, and them purchased five lion cubs from them, directly participating in the industry their movie vilifies. In addition, the much admired relationship of the actress and lion is hugely problematic in real life as evidenced by the fact that one of Richardson’s other lions (not used in the film) escaped his control and fatally mauled a woman at his sanctuary while this movie was being filmed there. That woman’s death has been largely covered up, and not addressed, while the interaction between young woman and captive lion in Mia And The White Lion has been glorified and promoted.

    Buying lions from the captive breeding lion industry only supports that industry. Showcasing the interactions between captive lions and humans, only makes other humans want to interact with lions. de Maistre is already filming ANOTHER movie that involves captive wolves trained to perform with people. We’re supposed to be evolving above forcing animals to perform, but while circuses are maligned (rightfully) for using animals in performances, and have now been banned from doing so in many places, people like Richardson, who are buying and using lions for performances, are being applauded for doing so, and even worse, their use of the animals is being marketed and *good* for the species.

    Please, rethink supporting this movie.

  4. Laney Preddy says:

    Great review! I saw this in Europe last week and loved it! You nailed it, Mr. Saveliev.