IN a sane world, there would be dancing in the streets at the arrival of a film as magical and entertaining as Carroll Ballard’s “Duma.” Television and radio advertising would trumpet its arrival, and audiences nationwide would be streaming to theaters to see it. Sadly, we do not live in that world.
In our world, this enormously entertaining film by the director of “The Black Stallion,” “Never Cry Wolf” and “Fly Away Home” doesn’t have a national release and is lucky to be on Los Angeles screens at all. No TV or radio spots are planned, and the only reason the film is opening in New York, Daily Variety reported, is that producer John Wells agreed to pay the marketing costs.
More than that, if L.A. and N.Y. audiences do not respond, no one else in this quality-entertainment-starved country, where contempt for standard Hollywood product is rampant, will get so much as a chance to see this marvelous adventure on the big screen. Go figure.
What’s especially frustrating about the “Duma” situation is that it is precisely the kind of film that audiences say they are hungering for. Its non-saccharine story of a boy and his cheetah is an all-around delight, and, as fans of Ballard’s previous efforts can testify, every bit as involving for adults as it is for younger viewers.
Like those earlier films, “Duma” is the work of a magician, a director capable of joining visual poetry with matter of fact plausibility, someone adept at using the world of animals to give us moving insights into our own. Simultaneously innocent and sophisticated, this honestly emotional fable shows why every Ballard film -- and his last was released almost a decade ago -- is a special event.
Given Ballard’s gift for working with animals, it was inevitable that the director would make a film in Africa, where the wildlife is thick on the land. This particular tale, written by Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain, is based on a popular nonfiction children’s book, “How It Was With Dooms,” by Xan Hopcraft and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft.
Similar to “Bambi,” “The Lion King” and others, “Duma” begins with the orphaning of a baby cheetah no bigger than a kitten and the source of the most endearing yelps. The baby is found near a highway in South Africa by a young boy named Xan (a debuting Alexander Michaletos) and his rancher father, Peter (Campbell Scott).
They call the cub Duma, the Swahili name for cheetah, and with the acquiescence of wife and mother Kristin (Hope Davis), the animal becomes a member of the family with but a single proviso: He has to go back to the wild one day.
Naturally, that day comes much too quickly for Xan’s taste, as Duma has become like a playful sibling. Making that rapport completely believable is a stroke of casting luck: 12-year-old Michaletos actually grew up on a South African farm with pet cheetahs and is completely at ease with the animals on camera.
Scott and Davis, who have acted together numerous times, supply the essential notes of clear-eyed intelligence and concern as Xan’s parents, but serious illness and happenstance take them both out of the picture before too long. The great adventure of “Duma” is Xan’s journey, forced on him by events beyond his control, to take the animal back to nature by himself.
As photographed by South African Werner Maritz, “Duma” makes wonderful use of the beauty of more than 75 locations in that country. He and director Ballard were clearly delighted by the opportunity to shoot with cheetahs, the fastest as well as some of the most regal animals on earth. Four adult cheetahs were utilized, including one, the press material notes, that “proved to be skilled at making a convincingly worried expression for the cameras.” The results, as always with Ballard and animals, are entrancing.
What makes Ballard’s films stand out, however, is his ability to add dramatic tension to this photogenic mix. In “Duma” it comes with the arrival of Rip (Eamonn Walker of “Lord of War” and HBO’s “Oz.”) He is a surly drifter who forms an unlikely alliance with Xan and Duma during their journey, and it is a mark of Walker’s skill as an actor and Ballard’s toughness as a director that from moment to moment it’s far from clear whether he plans to help or hinder the boy.
Paradoxically, the dramatic integrity that makes “Duma” such a fine film also makes it difficult to sell. Because its concerns are timeless instead of trendy, it is by definition unfashionable. Because its characters have texture and complexity, because its story doesn’t have the gooey heavy-handedness of the standard animal film, it is a trial for studio machinery geared to exploit the simplistic and the one-dimensional.
Seeing “Duma” during its Los Angeles run is a chance to experience a delightful film few others may be able to see as well as an opportunity to vote for the kinds of pictures you want in the future. You can either send Hollywood a message in the only language it understands or resign yourself to a lifetime of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Jackass” retreads. Stark as it sounds, those are your choices.
MPAA rating: PG for mild adventure peril
Times guidelines: An ideal family film
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director Carroll Ballard. Producers John Wells, Hunt Lowry, E.K. Gaylord II, Kristin Harms, Stacy Cohen. Screenplay Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain, based on a story by Carol Flint and Karen Janszen, based on the book “How It Was With Dooms” by Xan Hopcraft and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft. Cinematographer Werner Maritz. Editor T.M. Christopher. Music John Debney, George Acogny. Production design Johnny Breedt. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
In general release