Twin tigers rightly get sole above-the-title billing in "Two Brothers," a Southeast Asian-set animal yarn by helmer Jean-Jacques Annaud in which the humans come off a poor dramatic second. Combo of some stunning animal direction and exotic period setting charms when the quadripeds stalk but creaks when the bipeds open their mouths.

The titular twin tigers rightly get sole above-the-title billing in “Two Brothers,” a Southeast Asian-set animal yarn by helmer Jean-Jacques Annaud in which the humans come off a poor dramatic second. Combo of some stunning animal direction (courtesy of ace trainer Thierry Le Portier) and exotic period setting somewhere in French colonial Indochina charms when the quadripeds stalk the action but creaks when the bipeds open their mouths, signaling meaty biz with tyke auds and accompanying parents, especially in continental Europe, but less of a general adult draw than Annaud’s more dramatically involving “The Bear” 16 years ago.

Released in Gaul (in both its original English and French-dubbed versions) in the run-up to Easter, film opened well on the back of heavy promotion. It fans out in other territories during the summer and fall, with U distribbing Stateside June 25 and Pathe in the U.K. July 30.

Except when handling a rock-solid script (“The Name of the Rose”), Annaud has consistently shown a better grasp of landscape, fauna and ethnography than human drama throughout his three-decade career. “Two Brothers” is no exception. Opening scenes, which draw the viewer into an unspecified time (c. 1920s) and place (around the Mekong River), as the tigers’ parents meet and mate amid ruined Cambodian wats, beautifully establish the story sans words or titles, aided by an atmospheric jungle-effects track and Stephen Warbeck’s broad symphonic score.

While cubs Kumal and Sangha are romping in the jungle — in some of the movie’s most delightful scenes — danger is lurking on the horizon. Fearless “great white hunter” Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce), who’s switched his career path from elephant tusks to more lucrative ancient statues, arrives with a team of temple raiders and discovers the tiger family as a bonus. McRory promptly shoots the cubs’ father and makes off with Kumal; mom tiger and Sangha manage to escape, setting up the cubs’ separation that forms the story.

Early scenes of McRory and Kumal getting to know each other maintain the pic’s early charm, with Pearce showing a convincing fearlessness and the little tigger, established as the klutzier of the two cubs, stumbling around in captivity. Kumal’s mother makes two attempts to rescue him from the humans — including a daring leap onto the back of a moving truck — but fails.

After Kumal is sold off to a circus run by the evil Zerbino (Vincent Scarito), pic starts taking on water as the script develops some human characters and the smidgen of a plot. The local French administrator, Normandin (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), wants to develop the jungle into a tourist site with roads; for this, he needs the assent of His Excellency (Oanh Nguyen), a spoiled brat who lives under the shadow of his late father and has an airheaded French dancer (Stephanie Lagarde) from the Moulin Rouge as a companion.

Film muddles along in its midsection, with McRory hovering on the sidelines and engaging in a half-baked romance with a native girl (Mai Anh Le), while the tiger story ends up with Sangha adopted by Normandin’s young son, Raoul (Freddie Highmore). Flash forward a year later for the final act, and the now-grown Kumal and Sangha find themselves facing each other in an amphitheater cage for the amusement of His Excellency. Resolution of this face-off is disappointingly flat, but pic recovers some of its initial affecting charm in the final reels as the tiger story takes prime position, for a simple, moving conclusion.

Annaud’s decision to use less-wasteful DV rather than celluloid has resulted in some extraordinary moments of behavioral observation with his tiger cast. (Some 30 animals were used in all, with each of the “leads” having three doubles alone, and shooting extended across 180 days.) And in general, the animals are portrayed without any Disney-fied “human” characteristics. It’s also subtly made clear, without any obvious signposting, which tiger is which throughout the movie, with the clever device of a bejeweled neck-choker to distinguish Kumal and Sangha in the later scenes.

Bigger problem is the human story. McRory is described early on as a lady-killer but, in Pearce’s iron-jawed, expressionless perf, charm is the least of his attributes. (Thesp’s voice also sports a noticeable Down Under burr, despite playing a Brit.) Dreyfus overacts wildly as a Frenchman with everything but onions hanging from his neck, and Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu is wasted in the underwritten role of his bored wife. As the kid who teaches McRory something about animal respect, Highmore is fine.

Transfer from DV is generally very good, though some blurring and pasty colors will be noticeable to trained eyes. Mixture of real footage, mechanical effects and CGI in the animal stunts is more variable, though largely OK. Period design and Jean-Marie Drejou’s widescreen lensing of Thai and Cambodian locations (latter around the temples of Siem Riap) are tasty.

Two Brothers

France-U.K.

Production

A Pathe Distribution (in France, U.K.)/Universal (in U.S.) release of a Pathe presentation of a Pathe Renn Prod., TF1 Films Prod. (France)/Two Brothers Prods. (U.K.) production, with participation of Canal Plus. Produced by Jake Eberts, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Xavier Castano. Co-producer, Timothy Burrill. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Screenplay, Alain Godard, Annaud; story, Annaud.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, HD DV-to-35mm), Jean-Marie Dreujou; editor, Noelle Boisson; music, Stephen Warbeck; production designer, Pierre Queffelean; art director, Franck Schwarz; costume designer, Pierre-Yves Gayraud; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Christian Wangler, Matthew Gough, Mike Prestwood Smith, Eddy Joseph; tiger trainer/director, Thierry Le Portier; visual effects, Eclair Numerique; visual effects supervisor, Frederic Moreau; mechanical special effects supervisor, Uli Nefzer; animatronics supervisor, Denis Gastou; second unit director, Christophe Cheysson; associate producers, Flore Michiels, Ben Spector; assistant director, Cheysson; casting, Sophie Blanvillain (France), John & Ros Hubbard (U.K.), Raweeporn Srimonju Jungmeuer "Non" (Thailand). Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles 10, Paris, April 7, 2004. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 108 MIN.

Cast

Aidan McRory - Guy Pearce Eugene Normandin - Jean-Claude Dreyfus Raoul - Freddie Highmore Mathilde Normandin - Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu Saladin - Moussa Maaskri Zerbino - Vincent Scarito Nai-Rea - Mai Anh Le His Excellency - Oanh Nguyen Paulette - Stephanie Lagarde
With: Bernard Flavien, Nozha Khouadra, Bo Gaultier de Kermoal, David Gant, Teerawat Mulvilai, Jerry Hoh, Caroline Wildi, Juliet Howland. (English dialogue version)

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