Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/04/05 23:40:49

"Run like a cheetah to see this before it is too late"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Those of you with long memories will recall that the summer movie season began with Warner Brothers inexplicably attempting to scuttle one of their own releases, Paul Schrader’s hypnotic “Exorcist” prequel “Dominion,” by giving it only the most cursory distribution and almost zero publicity despite raves from critics and preview audiences. No one knows why they would want to doom one of their own projects but they are doing it again with Carroll Ballard’s lovely new family film “Duma.”

After turning it in to the studio, Ballard, forever beloved by children of all ages for his masterful 1980 film “The Black Stallion,” was informed that his film would be receiving a limited test release in a couple of markets this spring to see whether it had the makings of a commercial success. Of course, there was hardly any publicity and it predictably bombed. However, it did get some good reviews and the studio has decided to give it one last shot this week in Chicago. However, the very fact that this may be the first you are hearing of it–while the studio is simultaneously spending zillions to remind you that “The Dukes of Hazzard” is also premiering this weekend–indicates that they have pretty much already decided for themselves how things will turn out. The hell of it is that “Duma” is a charming film that audiences would probably really spark to if they knew that the thing existed.

Set in South Africa, the film opens as Xan (Alex Michaelotos) and his father (Campbell Scott) rescue a cheetah cub from the side of the road. They take it back to their sprawling farm and Xan’s father allows him to nurse the animal, named Duma, back to health and raise it on the proviso that he will return it to the wild when the time is right. A couple of years later, Dad dies and Xan and his mother (Hope Davis) are forced to move to the city and plans are made to send Duma to a wildlife refuge, though he is kept inside their apartment for the time being. One day, though, Duma follows Xan to school with predictable results and, fearing what will happen to his animal friend, Xan decides to take Duma and head out into the desert in order to return him to nature.

It is as this point that “Duma” comes alive in a series of extraordinary scenes in which Xan and Duma interact with each other in the vast spaces of the desert. The duo encounter many complications along the way. One is a mysterious stranger (Eamonn Walker) who appears out of nowhere and offers to help them–is he genuinely trying to be helpful or does he see Duma as a chance to make a lot of money by selling him? There are more natural dangers as well, including attacks by crocodiles and tsetse flies. The biggest danger is that the longer they are out in the desert, the more that Duma begins to return to his naturally predatory state–will Xan be able to get Duma to his destination before the animal sees him less as a protector and more like a potential lunch?

Although the storyline isn’t much, especially in the exposition-heavy opening half-hour, when Ballard gets his two leads out by themselves into the desert, he once again demonstrates his flair for getting humans to interact on camera with animals. The relationship between Xan and Duma (played by a group of four cheetahs) is completely convincing because they clearly seem at ease with each other and, as a result, Ballard is able to let their scenes play in long, unbroken takes instead of being forced to create them in the editing room. And no, there isn’t any trickery afoot–this is a real kid and a real cheetah that we are seeing at all times. (According to Ballard, he cast newcomer Michaelotos based on his acting and only then discovered that the child had actually raised cheetahs with his family.)

Although not flawless–a sequence where the boy crashes a party to steal food is just plain dumb and the repeated interruptions to check in on the increasingly worried Davis tend to disrupt the spell that Ballard is weaving–and not the instant classic that “The Black Stallion” was, “Duma” is still a thrilling and visually stunning entertainment that will excite and enrapture viewers of all ages. Too bad that the studio seems hell-bent on making sure that you never find this out for yourself.

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