An exceedingly unusual bond produces shockingly tepid family movie fare.
The history of movies is marked by unlikely duos. Whether it’s in vintage comedy double-acts like Abbott and Costello or the lead characters in classic movies like Paper Moon, cinema has long been defined by oddball pairings that just shouldn’t be. On paper, you couldn’t get a better continuation of that theme than a movie called The Wolf and the Lion, which focuses on the friendship between the titular animals. Unfortunately, despite the promising set-up, this new family movie proves to be a forgettable entry in the canon of unlikely duo cinema.
The Wolf and the Lion takes a cue from fellow family movies like Babe and Dinosaur by opening on death. As a lioness is shot on the Savanna, a lion cub is taken by a poacher and put into a crate, destined for a circus. One plane crash later and the cub is now loose in the Canadian wilderness. This is when Alma (Molly Kunz) comes into the picture. She’s spent her whole life refining her piano skills, a craft she never was all that enthusiastic about. While spending some time in her deceased grandpa’s cabin, this cub plops into her arms (literally) and she discovers a new calling: taking care of baby animals.
Yes, animals, plural. At the same time, Alma also happens upon a wolf pup and his wounded mother. Once the parent is eventually captured, it’s up to this young lady to take care of the wolf, named Mozart, and the lion, named Dreamer. Things go swimmingly for a while until Alma takes a tumble and suffers a concussion. While she’s knocked out, Mozart and Dreamer are split up and sent to a wildlife reserve and a circus, respectively. Though they may be apart, the bonds of this makeshift family mean every member of this trio will do anything it takes to reunite.
Contrary to what you might imagine reading that synopsis, Mozart and Dreamer are not brought to life through CGI in the vein of Life of Pi or The Jungle Book. Real animals are used to realize these creatures by way of a wolf and a lion who were raised and bonded together over the film’s 15-month long shoot. This does mean audiences get treated to various shots of these two animals romping around together without obvious green-screen trickery or distracting CG doubles to get in the way. It’s dubious whether these kinds of animals should be used in films, but at least going this route lends tactility to the central friendship.
Much like with A Bulldog Christmas, the best parts of The Wolf and the Lion are when the titular creatures are just goofing off in someone’s backyard in footage that looks like it could have come from home movies. Even the most cynical heart won’t be able to resist letting out a little “aww” at the sight of a lion cub rolling through the grass or a wolf pup just being a curious booger. These unstaged moments of spontaneous adolescent behavior are easily the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, they’re just a small part of the feature, which tends to emphasize tears over cuteness.
Despite having a title that suggests the tone of a 1960s Disney movie starring Don Knotts, The Wolf and the Lion is an exceedingly serious affair. Far too much of the screenplay by Prune and Gilles de Maistre (the latter of whom also directs) is focused on tired melodrama and an oppressively somber tone. It’s not a bad idea for kid’s movies to incorporate darker elements, but just being conscious of death isn’t enough to give your movie the weight of Coco. If you don’t have characters audiences can engage with, then it’s all just gloomy pablum.
Unfortunately, The Wolf and the Lion eschews depth or personality in favor of drowning out scenes in melancholy tunes harmonizing about the innate humanity of all animals. Playing things so subdued and somber especially doesn’t work at all with the human characters. Most of them speak in tin-eared expository dialogue that does not fit or justify the movie’s tone. Poor Kunz is forced to deliver terrible lines like “You came back to my hut for refuge!” while tragically wasted Oscar-nominee Graham Greene often looks like he can barely believe the drivel he’s being asked to say.
The disjointed nature of The Wolf and the Lion is further apparent in its camerawork. Gilles de Maistre and cinematographer Serge Desrosiers keep using flashy visual flourishes like the recurring use of a camera crane, but the lack of interesting framing, colors, or blocking in any given scene means that these accentuations are in vain. At one point, a comical conversation between Alma and an adversarial scientist is inexplicably punctuated with the camera pulling way back for a wide shot before to more intimate framing. There’s no point to such a big visual departure beyond maybe trying to liven up a tedious dialogue exchange.
The otherwise lethargic visual scheme of The Wolf and the Lion ensures that this project will likely alienate, if not downright bore, its target audience of children. It’s commendable that de Maistre and company wanted to create a family movie espousing messages about treating animals right, but couldn’t they have done so in a more entertaining way? Surely you can have your vitamins without them tasting bitter. Toss this feature into the bin of unamusing movie duos right next to Gilbert Gottfried and a talking horse in Hot to Trot.
The Wolf and the Lion is currently playing in theaters.