To celebrate the International Tiger Day, we look at films that have earned their stripes
by Amber Wilkinson
Shere Khan in The Jungle BookPhoto: Disney
It was International Tiger Day yesterday, so we're earning our stripes this week with a Streaming Spotlight dedicated to these Asian big cats. The animals are still under global threat, with their numbers dropping by more than 95 per cent since the beginning of the 20th Century according to the WWF, although they are now, thankfully on the rise again - and if you're looking for a film charting conservation efforts, Tigerland is well worth watching, although sadly not currently available to stream. You can read more about International Tiger Day on the WWF website.
Surely the GOAT of cinematic tigers, Shere Khan first prowled his way into the hearts of a generation of children with the 1967 Disney animation - and he was given a whole new lease of silky menace by Idris Elba in this live-action remake. "Live action" may be a bit of a misnomer given that the jungle here is a CGI creation but Justin Favreau's film, scripted with an eye to the original Kipling by Justin Marks, crackles with energy. Both the direction and Elba's performance bring a real sense of threat to the tale of the man-cub who must flee the jungle, with Bill Murray on hand as Baloo to add a bit of comic verve. The end result is a gripping family adventure that nods to the animation without being slavish to it.
Jennie Kermode writes: The recent series Tiger King has exposed the US obsession with keeping dangerous animals as a hobby to a wide audience, so the premise of this tight little thriller by Carlos Brooks might not seem as far-fetched as it did on release. Kelly is a hard-working, ambitious young woman who feels trapped at home by the need to care for her severely impaired autistic brother, Tom. Their step-father, who has recently got into the dangerous animal trade, is uninterested in helping. In fact, the most valuable thing about the kids as he sees it is a potential life-insurance pay-out. When he boards up the house during a hurricane his actions seem annoying and eccentric but understandable - but then he goes out and a fully grown Bengal tiger goes in. What follows is an almost literal game of cat and mouse, complicated by Tom's difficulty controlling his behaviour, as the hungry animal (played by three real tigers with no CGI) looks for its lunch. Solid performances and good chemistry between the two young stars keep it real as Brooks invites viewers to engage with their primal fears.
Guy Pearce discovered that tigers have plenty of bite on the set of this family film about two tiger cub brothers, when he got nipped on the shoulder by one during shooting, although in typically Aussie fashion, he said: "It didn’t scar, which I was a bit sad about." Jean-Jacques Annaund's film - which came 15 years after he'd scored animal success with The Bear - sees twin tigers Kumal and Sangha (played by 30 different animals through the course of filming), who find themselves torn apart by the human world, only to be reunited years later when they are forced to fight one another. Visually beautiful, the film's main strength lies in its wildlife photography and its tiger's eye view, meaning that even though the human end of proceedings sags a bit, it should keep younger members of the audience entertained as well as their parents. Have tissues on standby.
You might be forgiven for thinking that a light bit of tiger peril appeals to Antipodeans, given that Russell Crowe, like Guy Pearce, also had a close run thing with an animal on the set of Ridley Scott's sword and sandals epic. The film, which sees Crowe's Roman general Maximus sent into exile and becoming a lowly gladiator on the hunt for vengeance, features a colosseum fight with a tiger. A real tiger was used for some of the shots and it got a bit close for comfort. At the time, Scott told Variety: “[The tiger was] a big boy from tail to nose, 11ft. You’ve got two guys on a chain with a ring in the floor to control it. Russell said, ‘OK, release them,’ and when Russell would fall back, the tiger would come out of the hole and Russell would roll out of the way and he said, ‘F*** me, that was close.’" The tiger might only be onscreen for about five minutes but as cameos go, it's a roaring success.
Life Of Pi, Amazon Prime, AppleTV, YouTube and other platforms
Richard Parker and Suraj Sharma in Life Of Pi
Ang Lee's film about a teenager (Suraj Sharma) who is adrift on a boat with a tiger (the magnificently named Richard Parker) is a triumph of CGI creativity - although, as the director told us, they also had the help of four real ones. The live tigers provided the model for visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, who studied hundreds of hours of footage of the tigers in order to meticulously blend them with the CGI creation on the boat. Beyond the film's visual impact, Lee serves up a philosophically rich tale of finding your place in the universe that builds to an impressive and satisfying finale.
Pudgy panda Po (voiced to perfection by Jack Black) may be the main attraction of Mark Osborne and John Stevenson's animation but his high-kicking, hard-hitting side-kicks, including Angelina Jolie's serious Tigress, who initially wants nothing to do with the newcomer, add plenty of pep to this family tale. Soon,Tigress and Po - along with Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) - find themselves on the trail of the brutal snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who has escaped from a maximum security prison and is out for blood. The writers get plenty of comic mileage out of the mismatch between Po's physique and the prediction that he is a legendary dragon warrior but this tale also has plenty of heart, including some lovely character acting from Dustin Hoffman as trainer Master Shifu.
Tigers are often used as metaphors as much as physical presences in films - although Life Of Pi neatly manages both - and here, although we briefly see one prowling about, it's the concept that counts. Balram (Adarsh Gourav) considers himself exactly that sort of rare beast - born only once in a generation - and who is destined to break from his expected fate. Balram - who narrates the tale as a letter he is writing to the Chinese premiere - recounts his rags to riches tale, although director Ramin Bahrani hooks us in early by beginning towards the end of the story. We see how, unlike the roosters, which Balram says, refuse to leave the coop and avoid death, even when they have the opportunity, he becomes determined to throw off his societal and self-imposed near-slave status, even if he has to enter morally dubious territory to do it. Bahrani is scathing about middle-class hypocrisy and the lauded "democracy" of India while also serving up a decent amount of genre thrills.
We're returning to animation for our short film selection this week, Tyger, which draws on William Blake's poem to see the animal bring the jungle to the city and which was, amazingly, made as part of a 48-hour film challenge.