The sixth feature (and first since 1996’s “Fly Away Home”) directed by Carroll Ballard, “Duma” reps a superior all-ages adventure pic made by a filmmaker who knows more than a thing or two about the genre. Confidently blending the elements that have traditionally served Ballard well — kids, animals and epic landscapes — this intelligent, beautifully made production is a welcome reprieve from such crass (if successful) family pics as “Are We There Yet?” and “The Pacifier.” Perhaps for that very reason, Warner Bros. is approaching pic’s release with kid gloves, giving “Duma” a three-city “test” run (in Sacramento, Phoenix and San Antonio) that began April 22 and booking several fest appearances, but otherwise remaining uncommitted as to pic’s future.
Warners’ apparent uncertainty about “Duma” recalls the studio’s hesitant distribution of another kidpic from a decade ago: Alfonso Cuaron’s “A Little Princess” (1995), which was ultimately reissued amid much critical clamor and went on to earn several Oscar nominations. Like that film, “Duma” seems certain to garner strong reviews and enthusiastic word of mouth wherever it surfaces, and with proper support could find a devoted audience despite its lack of star wattage and its preference for those special effects generated by nature rather than computers.
A classical tale of a boy and his dog — only with a cheetah standing in for the dog — “Duma” was inspired by true events in the lives of wildlife photographer Carol Cawthra Hopcraft and her son, Xan, whose 1997 book, “How It Was with Dooms,” chronicled the family’s experience living with a domesticated cheetah on their South African farm. From those factual, if not particularly dramatic seeds, Ballard and screenwriters Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain have embellished a stirring, Kipling-esque yarn filled with perilous desert crossings, the forging of unlikely allegiances and the getting of hard-earned wisdom.
When young Xan (12-year-old newcomer Alexander Michaletos) and his father (Campbell Scott) rescue an abandoned cheetah cub, the animal (named Duma, the Swahili word for cheetah) quickly becomes an adopted member of the family. But as viewers of films from “Born Free” to “Free Willy” know, there comes a time when a beloved wild pet must be returned to its natural habitat. Hastening that inevitability is the sudden death of Xan’s father, which forces Xan’s mother (Hope Davis) to lease the farm and move to a city apartment that is like a bleak fortress of concrete and glass. But Xan remains determined to escort Duma into the wild himself and soon makes a daring desert escape, armed with a map, a passenger motorbike and a woefully inadequate plan of action.
Broken down in the middle of the Kalahari’s vast salt pans, without adequate food or water, Xan and Duma take refuge in the shell of a crashed airplane. The arrival of another lost traveler, a tribesman named Rip (powerful British actor Eamonn Walker), is hardly the miracle they’re hoping for. Following his own agenda that includes searching abandoned diamond mines for discarded booty and possibly turning Xan and Duma over to the authorities for a reward, Rip earns Xan’s (and the audience’s) trust only reluctantly, and with great uncertainty at that.
As this misfit trio rely on their wits to survive, a series of ravishing set-pieces ensues, including the transformation of Xan’s stalled motorcycle into a zooming, wind-powered dune buggy and the crossing of a rapid, crocodile-infested stream on a rickety homemade raft. And though “Duma” is engaging from the start, it’s in these scenes that the film really takes flight.
Like Ballard’s best pics (“The Black Stallion,” “Never Cry Wolf”), the movie is marked by ecstatic depictions of figures against a treacherously beautiful landscape, and by its ability to engage the imaginations of the young and young-at-heart without ever insulting their collective intelligence. Indeed, in every way that a lesser filmmaker might have allowed “Duma” to slip into convention, Ballard defies expectations.
The character of Rip, who could easily have been offered as an obvious ally or a form of comic relief, is instead rendered as a complex human being whose fundamentally good nature is compromised by the forbidding socioeconomics of contemporary African tribal life. And rather than turning a blind eye to such harsh realities as poverty and the exploitation of diamond-mine workers, Ballard makes them as much a part of pic’s landscape as the blinding dust storms and oceans of tall, dry grass.
Discovered by the filmmakers following an exhaustive casting search, native South African Michaletos proves a screen natural in a demanding role that requires him to be on screen for nearly every scene and to appear comfortable interacting with a host of exotic wildlife. Scott and Davis, playing a happier married couple than they did in “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” adopt spot-on South African accents and fittingly rustic, lived-in personas. But not surprisingly, it’s the animal performers (under the supervision of vet trainer Jules Sylvester) who steal the show, particularly the four adult cheetahs who interchangeably play the title role.
Physically grueling production, lensed on some 75 locations throughout South Africa, has been superbly rendered by production designer Johnny Breedt and costumer Jayne Forbes. Making his debut as a feature cinematographer, longtime gaffer Werner Maritz shows an extraordinary eye for the rich earth tones and delicate shifts of light that compose the desert palette, though some early interior shots suffered from a milky, washed-out quality on print screened.