Carroll Ballard is a director with a real genius for making wildlife adventures with visual poetry and dramatic intensity, and his new film "Duma" is on the level of his earlier classics, "The Black Stallion," "Never Cry Wolf" and "Fly Away Home." Those earlier movies-about a great horse, wolves and geese, respectively-set a standard for sheer scenic magnificence and screen animal magnetism that "Duma," the story of a boy and his cheetah, easily matches.
It's an idyllic existence, caught in rapturous images by Ballard and cinematographer Werner Maritz. But it's soon interrupted when Xan's father dies and his mother has to sell the farm and move them to the city. They take the cheetah along with them, but with dire results. Duma's escape from their apartment results in local pandemonium and the film's only weak, forced scene.
Afterward, the possibility of losing Duma sends Xan on a rash flight, escaping with his animal into the Kalahari Desert on a motorbike, with the cheetah in the passenger seat (a fantastic sight.) As the two whiz along, the movie, which has long since left the facts of the real story in the dust, begins to pick up that near-ecstatic power of Ballard's earlier films (like the great golden island scenes of "Black Stallion").
When the bike breaks down, leaving them on foot, forced to improvise "Flight of the Phoenix"-style, the story also begins to turn into a kind of "Huckleberry Finn" on the Kalahari. That robust sense of adventure is heightened by the introduction of the third member of the fugitive trio, whom Xan and Duma meet while camping out in some plane wreckage: ex-tribesman and would-be city hustler Ripkuna or "Rip" (Eammon Walker). Rip, a quick-witted rapscallion, is the movie's prime character. His personality grows richer as he helps them turn the dead bike into a dune buggy, the flight continues and his schemes deepen. Will he endanger their lives or sell them to the authorities? Walker, an actor of considerable dramatic virility and easy spontaneity, keeps us guessing-and that uncertainty heightens the suspense, helping Ballard build up sequences that, however familiar, still engage, rivet and move us.
This movie, set in a classic "Born Free" mold, could easily have been saccharine and over-predictable in lesser hands than Ballard's. Its devices are often familiar, its plot prototypical. But the director, a one-time protege of Francis Ford Coppola, excels first at drawing the bond between the humans and Duma and then at imbuing the adventure scenes with danger and lyricism. Even when Ballard restages such well-worn scenes as the whitewater race and Duma's reintroduction to the wild, there's an extra spin to the images, a pictorial radiance.
What Ballard does better than almost anybody-even the makers of great nature documentaries like "Winged Migration" or "March of the Penguins"-is to give his animals character while avoiding cuteness, to turn them into mythic protagonists against landscapes of proper beauty and size. "Duma," at its best, reminded me exactly why we loved movies as children: because they told stories like this, with images just as rhapsodically colorful and exciting. So why is Ballard's film being given such a limited and somewhat reticent release by its studio, Warner Brothers? It's rumored that its fate here in Chicago (where it opens before New York and Los Angeles) may determine its national release. If that's so, I hope Chicago embraces "Duma," which is exactly the sort of movie parents starved for a good family picture in the theaters should be seeking out. For once, they can find it.
Directed by Carroll Ballard; written by Karen Janszen, Mark St. Germain; based on the book "How It Was with Dooms" by Carol Cawthra Hopcraft and Xan Hopcraft; photographed by Werner Maritz; edited by T.M. Christopher; production designed by Johnny Breedt; music by John Debney, George Acogny; produced by John Wells, Hunt Lowry, E.K. Gaylord II, Kristin Harms, Stacy Cohen. A Warner Bros. release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: PG (for mild adventure peril).
Xan - Alexander Michaletos
Ripkuna - Eamonn Walker
Peter - Campbell Scott
Kristin - Hope Davis
Thandi - Mary Makhatho
Lucille - Nthabiseng Kenoshi
Xan's teacher - Andre Stolz