Mia and the White Lion
Mia and the White Lion is a family adventure English-language film by French director Gilles de Maistere focused on the friendship and bond between a lion and a young girl named Mia (South African actress Daniah De Villiers).
Mia caught my attention after reading that it was filmed over a three year period in order to capture the real-life bond that can develop between lions and humans—in this case De Villiers. This genuineness and the film’s lack of CGI is refreshing and not only gives the movie a somewhat nostalgic throw-back feel to films like Born Free or television shows like Wild Kingdom but also gives its underlying conservationist message a more authentic and substantial weight.
The film opens a month after 10-year-old Mia and her family have moved from London to a lion farm in South Africa inherited by her parents (British actor Langley Kirkwood and French actress Melanie Laurent). Her parents are struggling to turn the farm into a tourist attraction in order to fund the care of the lions, whose population has dramatically decreased in Africa. To help Mia adjust to life away from England, her father gives her and her older brother (Ryan McLennan) a white lion cub named Charlie.
When Charlie gets too big to live in the house, he’s moved into an enclosure on the property. The bond between Mia and Charlie continues to deepen, and her parents grow increasingly worried for her safety. One day, Mia discovers a horrific secret being hidden by her father and, desperate to protect Charlie, she steals away with the lion and embarks on a journey through the African bush towards a reserve where he can be safe.
(Warning: thematic and content spoilers ahead.)
Gilles and Prune De Maistre came up with the story after a trip to South Africa in 2011 while filming children being raised with wild animals around the world. They spent 10 days recording a boy playing with lion cubs on a farm they were told was raising the lions to sell to zoos but later learned were mostly sold to hunters, many of whom participate in “canned hunting,” an extreme form of trophy hunting where typically captive-bred animals are shot by in a fenced area with no chance of escape.
Haunted by the idea of how the young boy would react when he discovered what was really happening, Prune wrote Mia with William Davies (How to Train Your Dragon).
That moment is powerfully reflected in the film when Mia stumbles on a canned hunting event and witnesses a lion being shot repeatedly by “hunters” using bow and arrows and a rifle. While the actual event takes place off-screen, the camera hones in on Mia’s reaction, giving the film one of its strongest and most effective scenes.
It is made all the more effective because we’ve watched a genuine bond form between a human and a lion. Several times a week for three years, De Villiers spent time developing relationships with the lions who portrayed Charlie. Those real-life bonds play out on film, driving home that lions are intelligent, complex and capable of a wide range of behavior, including affection and friendship—also a key theme and message of Born Free, which was based on the real life relationship between George and Joy Adamson and Elsa, an orphaned lion they raised from a cub and formed a bond with that continued even after she was reintroduced into the wild.
Stories like Mia and Born Free are intriguing in part because they confront us with the connections we share with a mysterious, wild and untamable nature and its creatures. “We belong to this place as much as it belongs to us,” as one character tells Mia.
And they underscore that many parts of the natural world need protection. “Wildlife is something which man cannot construct,” Joy Adamson once said. “Man can rebuild a pyramid, but he can’t rebuild ecology, or a giraffe.”
This kind of connection resonates with me as a Christian. In Reflections of the Psalms, C.S. Lewis comments on the unique perspective of the writer of Psalm 104. His people work with the animals to live in a land where wild animals roam. Yet, Lewis notes, the psalmist impartially notes lions and whales live side by side with people and their cattle. He sees them as “fellow-dependents; we all—lions, storks, ravens, whales—live, as our fathers said, ‘as God’s charges.’” Instead of hostile world of competing creatures, the psalmist sees a created world full of living things with God-appointed, sacred duties to perform.
Mia has its weaknesses. The dialogue and performances are stilted at times, and the story is predictable. It also has moments where its message is too obvious, and some elements feel tacked on rather than integrated into the story.
But watching the genuine bond between Mia and Charlie unfold over three years was satisfying, and in the end, I enjoyed it.
And I’m not alone. The film is currently the most popular French film outside of France. But as I was walking out this the theater, I talked with a woman who drove an hour to the theater because it was the closest one she could find showing Mia. She lamented that it hasn’t gotten more exposure in the United States. So do I.
This film is rated PG for thematic elements, peril and some language. Parents should be ready to explain the practice of canned hunting to their children, since it is a central element of the film.