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MOVIE REVIEW

Tale of lions prompts 'Roar' of approval

On the giant black canvas of an IMAX screen, thousands of brilliant stars gleam. The peace of a Kalahari night, punctuated only by the occasional trill or hoot of an exotic bird, stretches endlessly. Then, seemingly from nowhere, comes a low, rumbling growl. It builds, recedes, then gets its answer, a full-throated roar. Lions.

For anyone who's ever spent a night on the African veldt, this is a powerful evocation of that unforgettable experience. For anyone who hasn't, it's a chance to feel the thrill and grandeur of lions in the night. And for filmmaker Tim Liversedge, it's a quietly riveting opener to a film that goes on to tell a dramatic, if sometimes fact-stretching, story of two dueling lions and the lionesses who hunt for them.

''Roar: Lions of the Kalahari" focuses first on an aging male, still magnificent in his black-maned power. Accompanied by two sisters, an old and crafty hunter and her young and impatient sib, he rules a water hole in the arid stretches of Botswana's Kalahari Desert -- ''a precious pearl of water," as Eleanor Grant's lyrical script puts it, ''in a world of thirst."

We live with the lions as they drowse in sparse shade, stalk the wary springbok who are drawn to the water, face off with a trumpeting bull elephant, and spar over their kills. We've seen this before, of course, but Liversedge has a fine eye for composition and a keen sense of narrative arc. And his attention to the sensibilities of even younger viewers makes this a good first visit to Africa for children: Though the lions do kill, the desert dust obscures most of the springboks' blood, and the scene of two lions mating is shot and narrated in such a way as to leave innocent viewers none the wiser.

That's not to say there aren't frightening moments, even for adults. The confrontation with a younger rival, when it comes, is loud and dramatic. The elephants, too, are magnificent and overpowering in their fury. It's not a film for anyone who cowers at noise.

It's not a film, either, for those who want their nature served up straight. Liversedge takes some liberties with the facts in order to tell a more vivid story: There were actually more than two lionesses in the pride, and the fight between the two males that he presents as their ultimate battle was actually an earlier skirmish. (The real, decisive defeat occurred off camera.) He discloses all this in an article written for a large-format-theater trade publication and enclosed in the press kit, but there's no hint of this narrative reshaping onscreen.

Does it matter? As a film, ''Roar" is the stronger for Liversedge's looseness. But it shouldn't try to come across as a straightforward documentary, because we hardly need more blurring of the line between reality and entertainment. Still, ''Roar" is thrilling and beautiful to watch, and Liversedge's decision to use 35mm film for some sequences points the way for other large-format filmmakers. The cost savings that let him stay longer and capture more remarkable behavior, and the dramatic close shots of lions that resulted, more than make up for the very slight loss of definition and crispness.

Maybe that's how the storyline works, too. It's a little fuzzier than real life, but it brings us closer to how life on the veldt really feels.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

Roar: Lions of the Kalahari
***

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