By Chris Cabin
The phrase "man's best friend" couldn't be more accurate when it comes to me and my dog. Not only does he greet me at the door when I come home drunk, he also is quite effective at warding off the bratty neighborhood kids when they come close to my house. Nobody I know has this kind of kinship with their pet, but plenty of movies depict it with enough charm to convince me that everyone has this relationship. Of the recent films about the relationship between man and beast, Carroll Ballard's Duma has its head quite a bit above the rest.
In the wilds of Australia, a mother cheetah is mauled and eaten by two lions, leaving her three cubs to fend for themselves. One of these cubs is picked up by a young Australian boy, Xan (Alexander Michaletos), and his father, Peter (Cambell Scott). On their way home, father and son decide to keep the cub and raise it as their pet, giving him the name Duma. It is obvious that the father and son have a strong connection, and it's made especially clear when they arrive home and the mother (Hope Davis) is hardly seen. Well, little Duma grows up and gets too big for farm life, so Peter tells Xan that they will take Duma back where they found him. Tragically, Peter loses his long battle with cancer and dies right before the trip is to take place. Xan finds it hard to get used to his new city home and, needless to say, so does Duma. After a panic breaks out at his school, Xan decides he needs to take Duma home himself. They take Peter's motorbike and head out to find Duma's home, running into a lost tribesman and several kinds of wildlife on the way.
First-time cinematographer Werner Maritz makes an impressive debut, giving vibrancy and mystique to the Australian desert. He sets up a perfect world for Ballard to play in; much like Caleb Deschanel did for Ballard in The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home. Ballard's unique sense of how animal and human bond has never been so keen, and he finds a more open terrain in Duma to explore it. The cheetah not only represents a promise to Xan's father, it represents all the bonds that the son and his father shared, all while still being grounded as his only real friend. Even more, the film never treads into overly melodramatic territory; the father's death is done quickly with very little crying and Xan's goodbye with Duma is heartfelt and sincere without overstating their emotional connection.
This is the second time that Scott and Davis have played husband and wife in the last two years (the other time being Alan Rudolph's excellent The Secret Lives of Dentists). However, neither of them steals a scene here, leaving Michaeletos room to give Xan's relationship with Duma a more natural and genuine feel. Eamonn Walker gives a wonderful performance as Ripkuna, the drifter that joins Xan and Duma and leads them towards Duma's new home. Ballard has crafted one of the better family films to come out in recent memory, and he might have just started a pet cheetah fad. Just don't feed them Milk Bones.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 27th May 2005
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros., Pandora Pictures, Gaylord Films, John Wells Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Fresh: 56 Rotten: 4
Cast & Crew
Director: Carroll Ballard