Warner Brothers funneled countless millions into advertising for “Kangaroo Jack” and “Racing Stripes,” insipid kid-animal movies complete with the voices of stars like Mandy Moore and Frankie Muniz. Given their history, it’s unfortunate that they are reluctant to pay similar attention to “Duma,” a more serious and intelligent family film that has been latent on their shelves since April.
“Duma” traces the adventures of a South African boy who must travel hundreds of miles to release his pet cheetah into the wild, lest the animal be placed in captivity. Absent teen-idol appearances, animated stints and the typical kid jokes, Warner Bros. execs have been uncertain of Duma’s ability to garner an audience. But there’s reason to have faith in this one: Director Carroll Ballard (“The Black Stallion,” “Fly Away Home”) has proven his ability to capture elegantly and unsentimentally the fragile relationships between humans and the natural world. The simple, colorful shots of people and wildlife in Africa show his latest film is no exception.
When young Xan (newcomer Alexander Michaletos) discovers an abandoned cheetah cub alongside a road, he and his father, Peter (Campbell Scott, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”), decide to adopt the animal as a pet on the family ranch. But as Duma (the Swahili word for cheetah) matures, Peter warns that the animal must soon be released before he becomes too old to readjust to the wild. Peter’s sudden illness and death make the northward trip to release Duma impossible, so the family drags the cheetah to a Johannesburg apartment as Xan’s mother searches for work in the city.
Duma’s escape from the apartment and surprise appearance at Xan’s school nearly lands the cheetah in captivity and convinces Xan he must complete his father’s plans to return him to the wild. He embarks with few supplies and no permission on a motorcycle trip hundreds of miles northward into the heart of Africa, his cheetah riding happily in the sidecar.
Xan’s survival along the perilous path is due partly to his encounter with another wanderer (Eamonn Walker, “Tears of the Sun”). The boy, cheetah and adult nomad form an unlikely trio who combine their skills to navigate the wilderness. Each member mounts obstacles to return to his natural habitat, and along the way, the group learns mutual lessons about loss, home and family.
“Duma” is more moving than other recent kid-empowerment movies, such as “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which tend to portray children outwitting villainous adults with absurd, fantastic solutions to their problems. The situations Xan encounters in “Duma” may be equally far fetched, but the themes resonate more genuinely.
Strong performances, rich scenery and a thoughtful plot help make “Duma” an enjoyable experience for both child and adult viewers. Though at points it falls into the familiar look-at-the-cute-animal movie, it was clearly made with the same care and craftsmanship filmmakers usually invest in films for older audiences.
As a sincere, no-gimmick picture without big-name stars, “Duma’s” nationwide release is still in question. But should it make its way into more theaters, “Duma” has the potential to become a new, enduring family classic, respecting the intelligence and emotion of children rather than placating them with colorful explosions and crude jokes.
Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
At the Michigan Theater