"Two Brothers" is a rare animal indeed: A critter movie not just for kids, with well-drawn, well-acted human roles that are more than just sidekicks for the stars of the show -- two extraordinarily expressive Asian tigers named Kumal and Sangha.
Generally a Serious Actor drawn to atypical grown-up dramas like "Memento" and "A Slipping Down Life," Guy Pearce is especially good as Aidan McRory, a famous, roguish adventurer, hunter and unscrupulous treasure profiteer in 1920s French Indochina, who becomes an occasional fixture in the tigers' lives. But Pearce also clearly understands he's in a supporting role and lets no movie-star pride get in the way of the story.
The first half of the film is about the cubhood of timid, curious Kumal and bold, protective Sangha, and how each comes to be captured as humans encroach on their territory and each of their parents is shot. Coincidentally, both tigers are rescued separately by McRory, but his own misfortune (he's arrested for looting archeological sites) leads to Kumal being sold to a gypsy circus, where his spirit is broken, and Sangha being turned into a trained killer by the emperor's private zookeeper.
A year later they chance to meet in the emperor's fighting ring and manage an amusing escape -- only to be hunted by the man who saved their young lives. "They never learned to hunt and they're not afraid of people," McRory explains to the tearful young son of a French administrator who once kept Sangha as a pet. "They'll go for the easiest pray -- women in the fields, children..."
Co-writer and director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Enemy at the Gates," "Seven Years in Tibet") gives "Two Brothers" an empathetic and nurturing sense of both animal instinct and human ego as his story unfolds in unexpected ways and with uncommon depth. Even with its sparse dialogue (tigers don't talk, after all), the film touches on issues of imperialism, nobility, cultural and environmental preservation, tomb-robbing, poaching and animal cruelty -- all without seeming the least bit preachy. In fact such moments are some of the cleverest and snappiest in the picture.
And there are no villains here. Even the sometimes-cruel circus owners, the wily colonial administrator (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) and the pampered emperor (Oanh Nguyen) are compassionate characters with many dimensions.
But more importantly, the same can be said of the tigers. I have no idea what it takes to get a bona fide performance out of an animal, but Annaud and his trainers do so beautifully. Kumal and Sangha don't exhibit taught mannerisms, they have personalities, moods and emotions. There seems to be a genuine understanding of their characters in the eyes of these handsome creatures. But that's not really possible...is it?
Annaud does make one stylistic mistake -- the mixing of film stock and digital video -- which haunts the whole picture. Not only is the digital camerawork distractingly conspicuous -- especially in a period film -- but it also looks cheap. The director probably cut a few million bucks off his budget, but the result is that he has a hard time doing justice to the beautiful jungle landscapes or the picturesque, overgrown ancient ruins therein that Kumal and Sangha call home.
But this artistic faux pas isn't enough to diminish the standing of "Two Brothers" as a fine example of one of cinema's most endangered species -- an animal movie, with a great script, that is engaging and entertaining for just about any age. (The film is rated PG for mild violence and may be intense at times for smaller children.)
Run time: 109 mins
In Theaters: Friday 25th June 2004
Box Office USA: $18.9M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: TLA Releasing
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Fresh: 89 Rotten: 25
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Starring: Norbert Orlewicz as Riley Adamson, Cody Campbell as Chad Adamson, Karen Rae as Tobie, Kevin MacDonald as Gavin
Also starring: Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Christian Clavier, Le Mai Anh, Freddie Highmore, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, Vincent Scarito, David Gant, Moussa Maaskri, Oanh Nguyen, Juliet Howland, Caroline Wildi, Bernard Flavien, Mai Anh Le
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