Mia and the White Lion: Authentic Love Story, No Special Effects Needed

Images courtesy of Ledafilms Entertainment Group Mia and the White Lion

Why do we form such special bonds with animals? Children especially draw a special closeness to pets and other animals that somewhere along the way we forget as adults.

Those trusting bonds and close relationships are something director Gilles de Maistre delves into in his new film, Mia and the White Lion, but in an unconventional way compared to other filmmakers of today. Especially when you add a lion into the mix.

Movie still showing actress Daniah De Villiers with her white lion.
Newcomer, Daniah De Villiers, shines as Mia and the White Lion’s main character next to her feline costar.

The results are beautiful and innovative to say the least. First debuted in France, this family film hits U.S. theaters April 12, 2019. And it’s not one to miss!

Not Your Normal House Cat

When 10-year-old Mia and her family move to South Africa, she longs for her life back in London: her old school, her friends, her Wayne Rooney-loving beau, everything. Feeling more alone than ever, Mia reluctantly tries to adjust to her new life, when one Christmas Day a white lion cub is born.

Known as a symbol of hope and the divine, this small white lion cub, Charlie, becomes Mia’s lifeline in her new home. They form a close bond, but as Mia and Charlie grow up together, Mia’s parents keep reminding her that Charlie is a dangerous animal. He’s not your normal house cat because deep down, he will always be a lion. And you can’t change a wild animal.

When Mia learns that Charlie’s life might be in danger, she sets out with her white lion across the savanna to seek out a refuge where Charlie will be protected and free.

Still from Mia and the White Lion, starring Daniah De Villiers, Mélanie Laurent, Langley Kirkwood, and Ryan Mac Lennan.
One of the unsung heroes of this movie was Mia’s brother, Mick (played by Ryan Mac Lennan), strong and powerful in his own way. Okay, but I also loved Mia’s kind-hearted and conflicted dad played by Langley Kirkwood. And yeah, that’s Mélanie Laurent as Mia’s mom. No big deal.

Maistre’s Inventive Filmmaking Sans CGI

This film could have relied entirely on CGI to capture Charlie. Disney’s live-action version of The Lion King is coming out this year thanks to a heavy dose of special effects. But Maistre went above and beyond on this project. This may have been a fictional tale. However, the bond you see between young actress, Daniah De Villiers, and her lion, played by a real white lion named Thor, is organically real.

Mia and the White Lion was filmed over a three-year span. Production started when Thor was just a small cub. Three years later, it wrapped up when Thor and Daniah were reaching adolescence and young adulthood together. No CGI or special effects were used for scenes with any of the animals featured in the film. None. Nada. Zilch.

When looking to take on such a complicated (and potentially dangerous) film production, Maistre sought the help of Kevin Richardson, known more commonly as the “Lion Whisperer.” He helped handpick Daniah out of hundreds of other children, asserting that to create an environment where a child actor could interact safely with a real lion, they would literally need to grow up together. So that’s exactly what they did. And we, the audience, get to see that growth from all the principle actors until Mia is no longer that little homesick girl. Soon, she’s all grown up, a lioness on the brink of adulthood.

“I think it’s the first time anything like this has been attempted: telling the tale of a love story between a wild animal and apex predator, and a little girl, with no special effects.”

– Gilles de Maistre, Director of Mia and the White Lion

That natural relationship between Mia and Charlie adds such a genuine depth to the story. It’s something I wish we saw more of in film today. I love the advances that filmmaking has made, but too many films have lost that pure authenticity that makes some of cinema’s finest moments come alive.

Not this film.

Movie still from Mia and the White Lion with actress Daniah De Villiers.
No CGI, no special effects. Daniah really is that close to this mature lion. Also check out that amazing mane of hair. Thor’s hair is pretty great, too.

Looking at Love, Lions, and Life Right in the Eyes

Mia and the White Lion is not your average family film or standard animal lover’s story. And that’s what makes it so good. It explores real relationships and how they affect us. The filmmakers created a setting where real bonds could form. The kind of bonds that we watching the film have felt ourselves. The film dives into the real ethical dilemmas facing the entire lion species, not yet considered an endangered animal, but fading fast.

Mia and the White Lion looks at these themes and other real issues right in the eyes. It is unafraid, much like Mia herself. And I love that.

Don’t miss this family film for the books coming out April 12! It may open your eyes to issues we sometimes choose not to see, but that are real all the same, and strengthen your perspective on the strong familial bonds in our own lives that never truly leave us. At least, it did for me.

Official movie poster for Mia and the White Lion, opening in U.S. theaters, April 12, 2019.
Who could say no to that cute, little lion face? Not me.

Head over to our Q&A with director Gilles De Maistre to read about the genesis of the film, the process, and what he learned from crafting this beautiful story.

Check out more reviews before you go!

Click here to read more articles by Emily, and click here to read more reviews of family films!