For much of Roar, my jaw was dropped, not for the level of technical accomplishment on display, but for the mind-boggling irresponsibility that went into its creation, the fruits of which have been widely touted by Drafthouse: the big cats which comprise most of the cast were completely unharmed¹ during the lengthy production, but almost every human involved was. And as the lions, tigers, leopards, and other felids leapt on, gnawed on, and chased about the hapless homo sapiens, as nearly every tenet of common sense where human interaction with wild animals is concerned was totally disregarded, so swung open my mouth.
I was lucky enough to meet one of the animal wranglers for the film’s production at the screening I attended, and he made the point to me that such a film could never be made now. And it’s hard to feel bad about that–that no one was killed in the name of Roar seems positively miraculous–but at least we have this anomalous film to bear witness to what happened when good intentions met some very sharp teeth.
Somewhere in Africa (the film was shot in California–more on that later), zoologist Hank (Noel Marshall, who wrote, directed, and produced) has assembled a number of big cats of varying species for experimental purposes. He faces trouble from an organization (his overseers, I believe–the film is not totally clear on just who they are), and when a couple of their members are slightly mauled by the animals, these members decide to kill Hank’s cats, selling the furs of the most valuable specimens.
In addition to this, Hank has to deal with his wife Madelaine (Tippi Hedren), and children Melanie (Melanie Griffith), John (John Marshall), and Jerry (Jerry Marshall), who are coming to visit him at his preserve. While out with his associate Mativo (Kyalo Mativo), Hank finds himself stranded some ways from the preserve, and as he and Mativo try to make their way back, Madelaine and the children arrive at the preserve.
Things at the preserve have been on edge lately, largely due to the presence of Togar, a lion whose constantly blood-soaked mane stands as testimony to his violent nature. Madelaine and the children are startled enough by the presence of the cats, but when Togar arrives, he chases them through the house, causing cat-astrophic damage. Eventually they make it to an outbuilding for the night, whilst Hank and Mativo try to get back, whilst the poachers make their way towards the preserve…
If it sounds like Roar is a bit of a narrative mess, that’s because it is; IMDb lists no less than 15 different members of the editorial staff, and given the film’s lengthy production (over a decade in planning, and 5-6 years to shoot), it’s not surprising that the film barely achieves coherency. Characters are poorly identified, exposition is often lost due to a muddy sound mix (and, I’m sure, heavy dubbing), making an already convoluted story borderline baffling.
The film seems uncertain even of its own tone; while its message is conservationist, it dwells on the damage big cats can do, and there’s the matter of Togar, whose violent nature seems to have no connection to any human activities–he’s just a malicious beast, who (spoilers) promptly redeems himself at the end by mauling the poachers and making up with his leonine brethren! (end spoilers) Is the film on the side of the cats? It has to be–Marshall and Hedren, then married, founded the Shambala Preserve, which Hedren maintains to this day, and as was explained to me, many of the animals in the film were raised from kittenhood by the Marshall family.
But then why highlight the mayhem? Is the message that big cats are no joke and humans should not deal lightly with them? Marshall himself confuses the issue by delivering all his lines in the same excited tone, whether he’s telling Mativo that the cats are just fine and there’s nothing to worry about or he’s wailing over the bloodshed in the third act. The film never seems sure of what it’s trying to say, but it’s awfully enthusiastic about saying it. (It’s worth noting that a lengthy message to the audience comes at the end of the credits, but I can’t imagine many were converted.)
The main attraction here, besides the knowledge of its calamitous production, is the cats themselves, and to be fair, they’re pretty damn impressive. The credits acknowledge that they generally did as they pleased (and thus were as much writers and directors as Marshall was), and to see them go is a treat for any animal lover. The majesty of the adults and the cuteness of the cubs is lovingly captured on film; whether it’s a cub playing with a skateboard, a lion with a helmet stuck on its face (according to the wrangler–whose name I did not catch–this was the helmet cinematographer Jan de Bont wasn’t wearing when he got scalped), or an elephant (yes, there are elephants involved as well) smashing a boat to pieces with trunk and tusks, Marshall was at least able to preserve some real fearsome beauty.
The humans are mostly there to be dealt with by the cats; Hedren (whose injuries included a bad bite and a broken leg) isn’t terrible, but Griffith (whose face was mauled and who nearly lost an eye) is pretty grating, making her later A-list status no more explicable (she and Hedren do have the immortal exchange “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” “The heart maybe, but what about the sex glands?”). The Marshall brothers, neither of whom had extensive careers, are just along for the ride; props to whichever one of them rode a motorcycle off a roof, though.
Mativo comes the closest to giving a good performance, actually; he only has one other credit (for Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend of all things), but he has a relaxed, natural charisma and brings a little humor to his consternated dealings with the animals (including a running gag involving his jacket).
There’s not too much to Marshall’s direction (although the sequence where Togar chases Madelaine and the children through the house is effectively intense), but de Bont’s cinematography is fairly good, with some lovely landscapes and agreeably excited mounted-camera shots. Terrence P. Minogue’s score doesn’t sync up with the film terribly well, but it’s a decent score in its own right; Robert Hawk provides some great kitschy-preachy songs.
I’d just like to mention that at one point, a picture of John F. Kennedy is randomly seen hanging on a way. It’s not the focus of the shot, but it’s placed in such a way that one can’t help but notice it. I’m not sure what that was about.
Based solely on its objective qualities, Roar would probably be a **½ film–it’s not quite terrible, but it’s certainly not that good–but one does not watch Roar for the reasons Noel Marshall intended. One watches it to marvel at the lengths to which a few intrepid souls went to make a film that goes against one of mankind’s most basic instincts. They should have trusted those instincts, but we got a heart-stoppingly irresponsible film out of it, It’s the kind of film every serious film buff should see once. Twice if you’re of the feline persuasion.
¹According to the IMDb, this is not the case. During filming, there was a major flood, and according to the IMDb–contrary to Drafthouse’s claims–several lions were killed as a result. I did not know of this at the time I spoke to the wrangler, so I’m not entirely sure what the truth of the matter is, but it bears mentioning.