Film Review: Roar (1981)

The lions of Roar (Image © Filmways). 

The lions of Roar (Image © Filmways). 

Authenticity on film. That's always been the great magic trick. Unless you were there, you know you are being manipulated by sleight-of-hand techniques matured over decades the second you sit down to watch a movie. Now more than ever, we find it hard to trust that what amazing spectacle we are seeing isn't a hot key in an editing program. Even before computer imagery, filmmakers needed ways to prove to the audience that their characters were in peril in new and exciting ways. 

Which led to one of the craziest fucking movies ever made. 

Noel Marshall (Producer of The Exorcist), his family (amongst which are screen legend Tippi Hedren and daughter Melanie Griffith) and the rest of a sizable cast and crew spent 11 years living with over 100 big cats (mostly lions, but also panthers, tigers, leopards and cheetahs) to make Roar. If you've seen the trailer, the tagline is that no animals were harmed during the making of this movie, but 70 members of the cast and crew were. Noah Marshall was hurt so many times he contracted gangrene.  Rest assured, Roar is even more unbelievable in play as it is in the trailer.

Roar is not a documentary, to note. Hank (Marshall) is a conservationist living with these animals in Africa in a large multi-leveled house. He leaves with Mativo (Kyalo Mativo) to save a couple cats from poachers while his family (Hedren, Griffith, and two teenage boys) comes to visit. Don't worry about the story. The story is the weak paper plate your steak is on. Why doesn't Hank's family know he's been living with lions, presumably for years? Why didn't he tell them when he knew they were coming? Ignore all that. You're watching human beings running carefree with life-threatening danger like it was a kite. Eat the steak, throw out the plate.

Both the thrills and humor work on multiple levels. Hank is like if Dr. Grant or Dr. Sattler from Jurassic Park were spliced with Jack Burton DNA via a Grizzly Man toad. It's hard to watch Roar and not think about Jurassic Park as these people mess with things they shouldn't. Hank has all the confidence in the world and we're supposed to believe he knows what he's talking about, but he clearly has no control over nature's unpredictable beasts. He also says flippant things like “That's Johnny Lion, don't worry about him he won't hurt anybody.” If Hank is Jack Burton (Big Trouble in Little China), then Mativo is Wang. Although according to the script Mativo is constantly scared and wary of animals, something about his body language and delivery made him feel like the only person that knew what he was doing. Everything with Hank and Mativo is gold. Hank is ever-brazen, jumping in head first and finding himself at the bottom of a lion pile many, many times.

Another level of comedy comes from the contrast between what the movie thinks is cute and funny while real peril looms literally on the rafters. Most of this centers around Hank's family. As I mentioned, they come for a visit while Hank is out, not knowing his home is cartoonishly full of wild animals. The family becomes trapped, running around the place like it's Scooby Doo, to the degree of playing hide and seek in lockers and a kid holding his breath in a barrel of water while lions slurp it down, all set to silly music. Hilarity ensues! Did I say hilarity? I meant actual real-life death with over 100 sandpaper tongues. So you have this family with a weird wink-nudge smugness acting like they're scared – but seeing that they're not as they've been living with these animals for over a decade. “Haha wink!” as a lion chews on an unmentioned prior injury wrapped in bandages and bleeding. These aren't set pieces, this is the whole movie. It's insane, it really is insane.

The other level of madness is a little more meta, in that it's the moments you realize that there's a camera and somebody holding that camera, not to mention audio and lights and whatever else was on set. The filming like everything else isn't from a distance. Not only are we seeing dangerous footage of people interacting with lions and tigers, we're getting coverage with tons of close ups, any of which I would've dropped the camera during. If you think Furiosa's eyes are something (they are), you should see Togar the lion. The sincere, intimate beauty of Roar shouldn't be overlooked amidst the lunacy. Cinematographer Jan de Bont (who, years before directing Speed and Twister was scalped by a lion, needing 220 stitches – okay it's hard to overlook the lunacy) shot what felt like a private glimpse behind the closed doors of African wildlife. Though Roar mostly features cats, the opening bike ride alongside a running giraffe is striking, and there's also some great moments with elephants later on – one of which involves Tippi Hedren getting hurt, of course.

There are also a few human stunts involving bikes and falls, but let's be real. We're not watching this movie for anything besides humans being absurdly nonchalant around powerful maim-happy monsters. I'm glad no one was killed, which both that and the film's existence are a miracle.

Roar is 100 minutes of twitching and trying to not yell at actors 34 years in the past between bouts of hard, nervous laughter. Nothing like it will ever be shot again nor was there anything like it before. Roar is truly a unique moment in film and sanity.