This jaw-dropping family drama could be pitched as Free Willy meets Roar, but that’s not quite fair. Mia and the White Lion
has far more heart and soul that the 1993 child-meets-apex-predator film. It’s also nowhere near as exploitive as 1981’s Roar, a big-cat comedy that almost killed several of its human stars, including a young Melanie Griffith.
The making-of details might even be the most fascinating aspect of this film. Documentary filmmaker Gilles de Maistre had the idea of making a drama about a child who bonds with a lion. So he teamed up with conservationist and “lion whisperer” Kevin Richardson, who told him the only way to do it without green screens or special effects would be to let a kid and a cub grow up together over a period of several years.
So that’s what he did. In the film, we watch fearless South African actress Daniah De Villiers age from 12 to 15, while Charlie (played by a rare white lion named Thor) grows from cub to maturity alongside her.
The story is straightforward. A blended family – South African dad (Langley Kirkwood), French mom (Mélanie Laurent) and two kids (Ryan MacLennan plays Mia’s brother) – lives on a lion farm. Mia, missing their former home in London, finds a friend in Charlie, whose white coat makes him particularly valuable. But when she learns that Charlie might not wind up in a zoo or nature reserve as her dad promised, girl and carnivore head cross-country to find sanctuary.
With its over-the-top score and oddball plot twists – at one point the only way to reach the savannah is through a big-city mall and out the back door – Mia and the White Lion may strike some as far-fetched. But if you can rein in your doubts, you’ll find an appealing human-animal tale that’s all the more astounding for being the real deal. I never tired of watching De Villiers and Thor work together. Is it acting, stunt work or a documentary? Whatever you call it, it’s stunning.