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