From its trailer alone it might be easy to draw the conclusion that the story surrounding the production of ROAR (1981) is more interesting than the movie itself. An eleven year project from Noel Marshall which involved his then wife Tippi Hedren and their children, filmed amongst a real menagerie of free roaming lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars in Africa during a period when Hedren and her family bred and lived with fully grown lions as a domestic pets. Seventy members of the cast and crew were injured during its making, in one instance resulting in facial reconstructive surgery for Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, and so it has now become notorious as one of the most dangerous film productions in history. It is an unprecedented film relic whose mythology runs the risk of overshadowing the film itself.
If you harbour that view, the likelihood of it changing whilst watching ROAR will probably depend on the crowd, venue and alcohol consumption you saw it under. There is little plot to discuss or dissect, and all the talking points are really the spectacle of watching the insane stunts being acted out on screen. Watching it alone would likely diminish the absurdity of the events, which have their greatest impact on a room full of like-minded and giggly people, so it is with some efficient brevity that the film comes with a strong recommendation as a cinema experience/ party piece.
Noel Marshall plays Hank, a zoologist with apparently zero faults living out on an African ranch full of free roaming wild animals (some of which are not indigenous, which raises an eyebrow). Hank is awaiting the arrival of his family, played by Marshall’s then real family of wife Hedren and their respective children, who have made the journey out to live with Hank. But when Hank gets stranded fending off poachers, Hedren and the family arrive at the ranch and are unwittingly trapped in the middle of a home invasion from a pack of vicious predators. The story is really only there as a loose framework for the chaotic set pieces of the cast being continuously chased and mauled by real untamed animals, so, despite the blatantly recycled scenes and a water-treading narrative, the reminder of ‘wow, they really did that’ constantly reinvigorates what is on screen.
Shear entertainment value aside though, it is difficult to tell if the incredible, nerve-wracking laughs in ROAR are drawn from an ironic, so-bad-it’s-good, viewing mentality or one which actually falls in line with Noel Marshall’s sincere vision of the film. To add to the insanity of its premise, structurally the film appears to have been pulled in three very different directions at once. The bookends of the film bash the audience over the head with a ludicrously naïve, new age hippie philosophy of man and animals co-existing in harmony – set to the song Here We Are In Eden by Robert Florczack. But conversely, the main bulk of the film sees Hedren and the gang desperately attempting to flee the enormous jaws of some of natures deadliest creatures (the story of the film’s production itself completely obliterates any message of harmony!).
The juxtaposition of these two contrasting tones in a better handled film could conceivably be melded into a critique of man’s eagerness to anthropomorphise the animal kingdom and the wilful blindness of what Herzog calls “the overwhelming indifference of nature”. But, just to add more confusion to the mix, the film is also interspersed with skits of animals-do-the-funniest-things levels of shenanigans, such as lions skateboarding, talking, piling comically into frame, licking honey off of actors’ faces and adorable tiny cubs attempting to roar. All these, hilarious as they are, are peppered throughout the film in a way that creates a nightmarish Disney fever dream and really appears to suggests a lack of any structural understanding or focused direction from Marshall.
And yet its precisely this friction between three completely different tones which gives ROAR the bulk of its appeal. As a whole, the film is bizarrely schizophrenic, but taken in isolated scenes, which given the lack of narrative is very easy to do, there are some perfectly executed comedy sequences (through no fault of anyone involved) which are difficult to imagine being included in the film without a knowing smile from someone in the editing staff. The two which stand out the most are, as you might expect, down to the comically coincidental timing from the cast of animals. The first is just as Hank says to his friend Mativo: “The cats just get a little excited-” before getting brutally tackled and piled upon by five fully grown lionesses. The second is as Hedren and her family attempt to escape the ranch by boat, but as they cautiously attempt to row away from shore they are repeatedly pulled back in by a lion lazily pawing at the boat like a cat playing with a ball of twine.
The absurd humour in these scenes derives not only from the apparent danger of everybody involved but from just how far removed the animals are from all direction the film might have tried to take. At the beginning of the film, credit is given to the animals for their contribution to the directing and writing, as the crew had to simply “let them do what they want”. The film very much feels true to this sentiment. Watching a pack of lions sabotage a scene paradoxically only further enriches the experience of ROAR, though not necessarily in the way it was intended. Compared to something like Born Free, the amusement from watching ROAR is not marvelling at how they managed to train wild animals to act but instead recoiling in shock that they literally walked into a lion’s den and managed to somehow make a film around it.
Dan Noall, September 2015