Combustible Celluloid
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With: Hope Davis, Campbell Scott, Alex Michaeletos, Eamonn Walker
Written by: Karen Janszen, Mark St. Germain, from a story by Karen Janszen, Carol Flint, and from the novel by Carol Cawthra Hopcraft, Xan Hopcraft
Directed by: Carroll Ballard
MPAA Rating: PG for mild adventure peril
Running Time: 108
Date: 03/18/2013

Duma (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Big Cat Movie Dogged by Cliches

By Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire

Duma is a paint-by-numbers kiddie adventure about a white South African boy named Xan (newcomer Alexander Michaletos) who befriends an orphaned cheetah. All the predictable elements are here -- Xan's charismatically outdoorsy father is terminally ill so the family is about to lose its farm, and the titular feline will be sent to a refuge, so the kid runs away on a bonding trek across picturesque veldts of stock wildlife footage hoping to return Duma to the wild.

But Duma has the good fortune of being directed by Carroll Ballard who has made a niche for himself with similar better-than-average films like Fly Away Home (a girl and her geese), The Black Stallion (a boy and his horse) and Never Cry Wolf (a biologist and a pack of wolves) -- so despite being unoriginal, the movie has it charms.

The cast includes talented independent-film staples Hope Davis (American Splendor, About Schmidt) and Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger, Big Night), adopting Afrikaner accents as the boy's parents. Eamonn Walker (HBO's "Oz") gives the picture's most interesting and layered performance as a furtive modern tribesman whom Xan and Duma encounter (and thoroughly distrust) on their journey.

Ballard effectively evokes naturalism and respect for other cultures, while creating enough mild excitement to hold the attention of any squirming 7-year-old. But contrivances that will roll the eyes of adults are more than abundant, not the least of which is that little mention is made of where our wander heroes are finding food and water to keep themselves alive.

Whether such problems stem in any way from the movie's inspiration, the popular children's picture book "How It Was With the Dooms," I cannot say. But coupled with the narrow-range acting abilities of its young star and the fact that the film was clearly made on the cheap, Duma seems a pretty effort.

While it would hold up well against other routine kiddie-animal matinees, all through Duma I kept thinking of last summer's Two Brothers, now on video and DVD, which features the gifted Guy Pearce (Memento) and Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland and the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as a treasure hunter and a young boy who each become attached to one of a pair of incredibly expressive tiger-cub siblings separated by a tragedy.

Co-written and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (Enemy at the Gates, Seven Years in Tibet) , that picture goes deeper both cinematically and emotionally, developing an empathetic and nurturing sense of animal instinct and human ego as its story unfolds in unexpected ways and with uncommon depth. Duma isn't a bad movie, but when it comes to young boys and big cats, Two Brothers is better in every way.

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