Film Review: Lion Ark

Animal-rescue film is just bearable.

A difficult film to rate or even recommend, Lion Ark focuses on a vitally important subject but is not especially well-made. Animal lovers will be alternately heartened and horrified by the story of the team who saved a group of mistreated wild lions from a Bolivian circus. Whether or not the documentary will attract enough people to its cause remains to be seen.

Director Tim Phillips happens to be one of the members of Animal Defense International (ADI), an organization that successfully forced several South American governments to close circuses with past records of animal abuse (e.g., the separation of cubs from their mothers, cage overcrowding). Lion Ark details the step-by-step attempts by ADI to save 25 African big cats from one particular circus in Bolivia that had somehow eluded the shutdown decree.

Jan Creamer, Phillips’ wife and the co-writer and co-producer of the film, heads up the team and is a central figure in the saga, which shows the rescuers planning their strategy, taking the lions in a surprise ambush, delivering them to a safe compound, flying them to the U.S., and eventually nursing them back to health in their permanent Colorado refuge. Along the way, there are tense standoffs and unexpected twists (the animals of a nearby circus need saving as well). Phillips intercuts the narrative with recollections from the people involved and comments by a few celebrity activists, including Bob Barker (who funded the rescue) and actress Jorja Fox (who is an ADI ambassador).

One cannot help but appreciate the mission of ADI and their all-out commitment. Lion Ark is part of that in a way, because its end credits feature an encouragement to viewers to support adoptions. With a doc of this nature, one wouldn’t expect or want detachment from the filmmaker. After all, what would be the “argument” for abusing or mistreating animals? The emotional pull of the story, not to mention the beauty of the beasts, should be enough for even the most uninformed, casual viewer to see circuses and other entertainment venues as not necessarily the best environments for animals. Hopefully, if nothing else, Lion Ark will raise awareness.

Less successful are the film’s intrusive bits of business (particularly in the first 30 minutes)—Tony Pattinson’s fast-paced cutting, a poor choice of rock songs, and Karel Havlicek’s overly dramatic original scoring. One wishes Phillips trusted the audience enough with simply the shots of the animals looking ill (or worse!) to understand the gravity of the situation, difficult as it is to view the images. The extra emphasis is unnecessary. Ironically, the last third of the film could use some cinematic flourish: Other than a memorable speech by Bob Barker, there is less to get excited about once the animals are healing and relatively safe. (We see a lot of shots of sleeping, sedated lions.) One other minor problem is that the font size and style make the credits and subtitles difficult to read.

Quite frankly, those who care about Lion Ark’s issues might as well skip the movie (especially the tedious last section) and contribute to the cause. The website gives donation information.