Cheetah (1989)

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While not a popular film, Cheetah, is somewhat notable for having the distinction of being the Disney film that introduced the Swahili phrase, “Hakuna Matata” to the Western World. This was a whole five years before another Disney film would be released!

Yep, Squanto, exactly!

But should Cheetah be remembered for more than just that? Read on for my review of the film!

And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!

Directed by Jeff Blyth, Cheetah opens up to a montage of the East African landscape and wildlife.

I like to think that Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers watched this and inspiration struck!

We’re then introduced to siblings, Ted and Susan Johnson, played by Keith Coogan and Lucy Deakins, respectively. They’ve just arrived in Kenya by plane from California to join their parents who work here in Kenya. The siblings are looking forward to the visit although they may have mistaken assumptions of what Kenya will be like.

“It’s gonna be more like The Lion King.”
“What’s The Lion King?”
“Never mind.”

Their parents pick them up from the airport and drive them to their house, a solitary abode in the Kenyan savanna, but not far from the local village by car. They tell Ted and Susan to stay indoors and not to go off exploring. Ted and Susan obey at first, but eventually do leave the house to explore after feeling bored out of their minds.

They meet and befriend a young Maasai kid named Morogo, played by Collin Mothupi, and the three of them become fast friends. He shows them his village and the Kenyan savanna while they introduce him to Western marvels like video games. (Around here we hear the song, Jambo Bwana, which features the phrase, “Hakuna Matata”. I couldn’t find the version from the movie on YouTube, but enjoy the following clip.)

Soon enough, Ted and Susan’s parents discover that they’ve left the house, but this surprisingly doesn’t lead to any conflict. Morogo’s parents are also concerned about him spending so much time with Ted and Susan as they point out the weird things white people do like “eat fish”.

I’m pretty sure this was meant to be racist!

One day, the three friends come across a young cheetah cub in the savanna whose mother was killed and skinned by a poacher. Ted and Susan take the cub (whom they name Duma) home and try to convince their parents to let them keep her as a pet. Their parents are against it at first, but eventually give in.

Wow, you parents are pushovers!

Ted and Susan raise Duma and watch her grow up over the next couple of months. It’s not long though before the family has to return to America as the parents’ work stint is soon over and the kids have to return to school. It’s decided to release Duma back into the wild at Cheetah Valley although an Indian storekeeper, Mr. Patel, played by Kuldeep Bhakoo, offers to buy Duma which they refuse.

Mr. Patel then, along with a conniving Englishman, Nigel, played by Anthony Baird, and a Kenyan poacher, Abdullah, played by Paul Onsongo, kidnap Duma without the family knowing. They plan to organize a race, enter Duma in it, and bet against her. Why? Because the race will be longer though than what a cheetah can handle resulting in Duma tiring quickly and losing the race!

A white man, a black man, and a brown man as the villains? Well, that’s new for a Disney film!

Eventually, it’s time for Ted and Susan to return home. They’re saddened as they can’t find Duma anywhere. Their parents assure them that Duma probably went back to the wild on her own where she belongs. But after stopping by Mr. Patel’s store on the way to the airport, Ted sees Abdullah there and notices his shoe treads are the same as those of the poacher who killed Duma’s mother. Ted is convinced Mr. Patel and his friends are responsible for kidnapping Duma, but of course his parents tell him that he’s building it all up in his head as an excuse to stay in Kenya.

They drop Ted and Susan at the airport to head back home as they will join them in California in the near future. But Ted and Susan decide to skip the flight and instead return to Mr. Patel’s store and inquire directly about Duma. Back at the store, they discover that Mr. Patel has left and gone to a camp in Jamhuri.

They seek out Morogo to help them reach Jamhuri. He tells them that it’s a couple of days walking through the Kenyan savanna, but he can’t go with them as his parents won’t let him. Ted and Susan don’t mind and begin the trek themselves dealing with the harshness of the African savanna. Eventually though, Morogo joins them for the remainder of the journey having slipped away when his parents weren’t looking.

He also teaches them how to survive off the land like by eating termites!

When Morogo’s parents discover him missing, they realize what has happened and go to Ted and Susan’s parents. At first they don’t believe it as they’re sure Ted and Susan are in California, but once they discover that’s not the case, they seek the help of the Kenyan police force in finding the kids.

The kids eventually come across the camp in Jamhuri to find Duma caged, but Mr. Patel and his friends take Duma away for the race before they can rescue her. The Kenyan police eventually locate the kids, but they manage to escape them and hitch a ride to where the cheetah race is being held. Their parents end up there too and everyone is reunited.

They then see Duma racing and about to lose, but when Ted steals a policeman’s whistle and blows it, it reminds Duma of the whistle they trained her with and she boosts to the finish line with incredible speed! She wins the race foiling the plans of the kidnappers who are arrested.  At the end of the film, Ted and Susan bid a sad goodbye to Duma as they release her into Cheetah Valley.

And that was Cheetah! Honestly, this was a really delightful and charming film! The story is pretty simple, but filled with so much charm! I was fond of Keith Coogan’s and Lucy Deakins’ acting the most. I also loved their dynamic in the film as siblings. I feel most Western films don’t showcase brother/sister relationships in positive, loving manners, so I’m a sucker whenever I come across a film where the brother and sister have a healthy, loving relationship with each other. It was sweet and believable!

The cheetah was trained very well and I loved the music and landscapes depicted in the film. I also was glad that the entire film took place in Kenya rather than having the kids fly back to California for an American scene and then return to Kenya.

All in all, I think this is a great film that deserves to be more well-known!

So, my final score for this film is 32/35 = 91.43% (A-) !

The next review will be posted on July 12, 2022.

5 thoughts on “Cheetah (1989)

  1. I watched this once a while ago, and it was diverting enough, but frankly, I’m more partial to Carroll Ba DUMA; the later film had more of an emotional core to it that kept me invested in the story.

    Incidentally, I first heard the song “Jambo Bwana” over the end credits to an old (i.e. turn-of-the-millennium) BBC special, LIONS: SPY IN THE DEN.

  2. From what little I remember of this one, I can say for certain that DUMA is *definitely* better; it’s one of the few all-ages live-action films that I consider anywhere near perfect (alongside MARY POPPINS and BABE, of course).

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