Live-action movies that focus on animals are almost by definition designed to be highly emotional. From Free Willy to Homeward Bound to the progenitor of the genre, Old Yeller, if an animal is at the center of the story, then viewers are virtually guaranteed to be crying by the end of the film.
That’s the expectation at the outset of The Wolf and the Lion, in which Alma (Molly Kunz) returns home for her grandfather’s funeral in the Canadian wilderness. Through highly unusual circumstances (a nearby plane crash, a spooked she-wolf who had trusted her grandfather), she finds herself suddenly in possession of both a lion cub and a wolf pup. Learning that the lion was meant to go to a circus, she decides to keep them instead of turning the younglings over to animal control.
In another film, showing Alma bond with the animals and the animals bonding with each other would be priority No. 1. While there are plenty of cute shots of the animals palling around, director Gilles de Maistre and writer Prune de Maistre for some reason add on a number of other subplots, including Alma pursuing a career as a pianist, two men (Charlie Carrick and Derek Johns) trying to save endangered snow wolves, an over-the-top circus owner trying to find the lion, and more.
Not only does this divided attention de-emphasize the relationship between Alma and the animals, but it also makes the filmmakers fast-forward the story in odd ways. Months sometimes pass in a flash, with little explanation as to why that choice was made. Little attempt is made to flesh out anyone’s backstory, so it’s difficult to get invested in any of the characters. This is obviously a low-budget film made with earnestness, so the filmmakers should be afforded a degree of slack, but there are only so many times they can fail to connect the dots before it becomes too much.
Along those lines is the poor acting. Kunz, who has a decent filmography going, is okay, but the weird story choices hinder her. Graham Greene, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1991, co-stars as a family friend, but his small part gives him almost nothing to work with. The other actors all come off as very stilted, something that likely can be chalked up to the filmmakers not knowing how to get good performances out of them instead of them all being bad actors.
Also strange is the use of live animals. The film industry has increasingly gone away from using live animals, and one of the film’s subplots explicitly talks about how bad it is to cage wild animals, so relying on actual animals seems to be off-brand. The filmmakers seem to have a recent focus on films featuring big cats, which might be part of a larger agenda, but that doesn’t come across in this story.
If the aim of The Wolf and the Lion was to be inspirational, it fails miserably. The filmmakers take too many shortcuts and don’t pay enough attention to their characters to warrant the audience caring about anything that happens in the film.
The Wolf and the Lion is now playing in theaters.