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Review: Roar (1981)

Roar (1981)

Directed by: Noel Marshall

Premise: An American family travels to Africa to visit their father who is researching lions and tigers. Dozens of big cats live in and around his home. The family arrives while the father is away and they are terrorized by the animals.

What Works: Roar is an infamous film. By all accounts the production was a disaster due to unpredictable animals and natural catastrophes. Most notably, Roar features dozens of big cats interacting with the actors and several cast and crew members were seriously injured during filming. Roar opened in European theaters in 1981 but aside from some VHS releases it remained unavailable in the USA until 2015 when Drafthouse Films made Roar available on blu-ray. The movie’s notorious production history has made it a curiosity and it is a bizarre confluence of filmmaking choices. Roar seems to have been originally conceived as a Disneyesque, family-friendly adventure like Swiss Family Robinson or Born Free and there are certainly elements of those sorts of movies to be found here but quite a lot of Roar plays like a horror film. The movie features people being pursued and attacked by big cats and the movie is frequently quite gripping. Roar is worth a watch in part because it is such a weird film but also because of the extraordinary footage of lions, tigers, and other big cats mingling and at times attacking the human performers. The story centers upon an animal behaviorist played by Noel Marshall (who also directed and produced the film) who lives in a house in Africa that is prowling with big cats. He seems less like a zoologist and more like a crackpot; Marshall’s character and elements of this film are less reminiscent of Disney’s A Tiger Walks and much more in line with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. The film possesses a strange internal tension. From the viewer’s perspective, this is a story of man’s hubris and the failed domestication of wild animals. The very existence of Roar is a testament to this. Meanwhile, the characters and indeed the filmmakers insist that everything is fine all while big cats invade and destroy a domestic space and terrorize the family inside of it. That disconnect and the film’s radical shifts in tone make Roar a fascinating disaster.  

What Doesn’t: By any conventional measure, Roar is not a good movie. Its assembly is haphazard. The action doesn’t always cut together; it’s obvious that this movie was largely made in the editing room by constructing sequences out of the available footage. The audio is inconsistent and the sound effects and music are sometimes jarring. The story of Roar is frequently absurd. This family knows that their father lives with big cats so it’s incredulous of them to be surprised to find lions and tigers all over the premises. And then instead of barricading themselves inside the house the family members constantly make stupid choices that put them in more danger. The acting performances aren’t particularly good either, partly owing to the human characters being uninteresting and poorly defined. Perhaps the biggest misstep is in the ending. What’s so obvious from this footage is that the father is insane and the big cats are not house pets and they cannot coexist peacefully alongside human beings. But the filmmakers double down on their ecological message. The finale of Roar contravenes everything else in the film in order to force a conservation message that is predicated on sentimentality instead of respect for nature. 

DVD extras: Commentary track, documentary, interviews, image gallery, and trailer. 

Bottom Line: Roar is a fascinating display of dissonance and hubris by its makers. Its extraordinary footage makes for a visceral viewing experience. That and its flaws make Roar a curious cinematic artifact of a filmmaking experiment gone wrong. It’s not really a good movie but it’s also not to be missed.

Episode: #759 (July 28, 2019)