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Born Free

Born Free on DVD

This is definitely an oldie, but it’s also a goodie - especially if you’re an animal fan in general or a cat lover in specific.

If only it were a better DVD…

Born Free is the true story of Joy Adamson and her husband George and their relationship with Elsa, a born wild lion cub (though the word “kitten” probably applies better) who with her sisters was orphaned when George was forced to shoot her mother and father.

Joy (“joyfully” played by Virginia McKenna) is forced, though not very reluctantly, to raise these kittens in order to save their lives. The “little” critters aren’t even weaned when they first come into her and George’s (Bill Travers) lives so their first task is to find a formula that they’ll accept from a baby bottle.

As it turns out, it may not be the formula but the loving contact the kittens needed, because when they get to the 17th version of their test formula George hits on the idea of spreading the milky stuff onto Joy’s hand and seeing if that helps.

It does. The first kitten responds immediately and licks Joy’s hand clean (in a yecchy kind of way!) then heads straight for the bottle.

The rest, as they say, is history - at least for a good while.

We’re treated to some wonderful scenes of the kittens growing up, acting like kittens that could be like those in any cat “owner’s” home today except for the size of the lovable critters. These scenes are a cat lover’s delight, and this die hard cat lover of a reviewer was moved to tears of joy upon watching them (and was so affected that the tears are reappearing as this is written, in a most unmasculine way - dammit!).

But kids grow up and lion kids grow up to be really big cats with all the troubles that can represent. So Joy and George are reluctantly forced to donate these adorable cats to a zoo - but by the time they get to Nairobi airport Joy can’t stand to see them put on a plane and goes shopping to avoid the painful goodbye.

George, the perceptive and loving husband that he is, has a surprise for Joy on the trip home: he’s kept her favorite, Elsa, behind and Joy’s joy is complete.

Flash forward until Elsa is no longer a kitten and the problems are multiplied until they’re forced to either send Elsa to a zoo, where she’ll be miserable, or try the unprecedented task of teaching her to be a real lion and live free among her kind.

This is a heartbreaking process full of disappointment as this beautiful creature repeatedly fails to learn the ways of her ilk - almost to the point of her own destruction.

But all isn’t lost and in the end Born Free is a triumphant tale that lets us experience the best of both worlds.

McKenna and Travers are very good as Joy and George Adamson, especially McKenna (George is mostly along for the ride, since this is Joy’s and Elsa’s story). But they both take a back seat to the lions, especially the one playing Elsa, of course. The feline performances are amazing (Elsa was played by Girl, Mara and Henrietta), and make you wonder how the heck they got lions to do all this stuff (including standing there a letting a warthog bash its head repeatedly into her).

And mention must be made of the Oscar-winning score by the great John Barry, including the Oscar-winning title song.

The DVD falls down in the video department, but Columbia Tristar has wisely swum against the current tide by offering anamorphic widescreen and Pan&Scan versions on the same disc, accessible from the main menu. This is the way it should be, or at least both aspect ratios should be offered on opposite sides of the same disc or as a second disc in the same box.

So Bravo to Columbia Tristar for this.

Alas, the movie could benefit from a loving restoration, not just a digital remastering such as was done for this DVD release. While the close-ups look fine, many of the longer shots suffer from grain and this is too bad. Still, the colors are good and this comes in handy with the African backdrop where Born Free was filmed.

Audio is Dolby Digital mono and is unremarkable.

Extras are limited to trailers for this film, its sequels, and “Fly Away Home.”

Born Free, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
95 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 TV compatible / Pan&Scan (4x3 TV compatible), Dolby Digital mono
Starring Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers, with Geoffrey Keen
Produced by Sam Jaffe & Paul Radin
Written by Gerald L. C. Copley, Directed by James Hill


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Updated May 13, 2006