The Leopard Son (Hugo van Lawick)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

The Leopard Son, the first theatrical release from the Discovery Channel, is a fly-on-the-veldt documentary which follows the first two years in the life of a leopard, quietly observing its transition from boisterous cub to self-sufficient adult. I know what you're thinking: I can see this kind of thing on television for free -- might as well wait for the videocassette. But if the film is still playing at a theater near you (it's already gone in New York City, after an unprofitable two-week run), I encourage you to seek out a bargain matinee screening; as a wildlife documentary, it's not in any way revelatory or innovative (for that, check out Microcosmos), but its stunning shots of the flora and fauna of the Serengeti look absolutely magnificent on 35mm film, whereas on your television set I suspect they'll simply register as the familiar flattened picturesque semi-beauty of Wild Kingdom. The leopard, of course, is the primary focus, but a wide variety of creatures is on display here -- baboons, gazelles, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, lions, jackals, giraffes, the works -- and van Lawick and his crew, in time-honored fashion, get you so close to them that you feel as if you could almost reach out and shoo those flies away from their faces. How the hell do animals tolerate those goddamn flies all day?!? Anyway, The Leopard Son is a rare documentary in which you really feel as though you're seeing Life As It Actually Happens -- one in which the filmmakers don't appear to be distorting reality in the process of recording it. And while it's nothing you haven't seen before while channel-surfing on a slow night ("observe as my foolhardy assistant Dave ventures forth to offer the mighty rhinoceros a Slurpee"), you may be surprised by how much more amazing it all looks up there on the big screen. One major drawback: John Gielgud narrates the film, as the voice of van Lawick, in a lugubrious, "can-I-have-my-check-now-please?" tone that makes you wish Arthur had killed him in a drunken rage back in 1981.