Duma is a movie for kids and animal lovers (often one and the same). Like Born Free and the gross of Disney animal flicks to proceed and follow it (Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar, anyone?), Duma grabs for the gut by stoking primal understandings about our loving but tragically distant relationship with the wild. Duma stands out from the pack in that it is the latest film by Carroll Ballard, who redefined and refined the animal-inadvertantly-teaches-humans-a-lesson genre with The Black Stallion (1979), Never Cry Wolf (1983), and Fly Away Home (1996).
Like most of the classic animal pictures, Duma is also a story of friendship and coming-of-age for a human child. When a baby cheetah is orphaned in a South African preserve, he wanders onto a road and finds refuge with growing-boy Xan (Alexander Michelatos) and his father (Campbell Scott). Christened "Duma" (Swahili for "cheetah"), the cheetah becomes Xan's constant companion. The boy glories in the majesty of his young friend, who stretches out his lithe frame to dash alongside (and ahead of) father and son on motorbike and sidecar. Xan's father dutifully explains that they cannot hold onto Duma—"no more than my mom and I can keep you here"—and one day, Duma will have to return to the wild.
Shortly after plans are made to escort Duma to an inviting spot for cheetahs, Xan too loses a parent. Ballard treats the turn as more than simply a plot device. Xan wonders, "How can someone just disappear like that?" and reads to his mother (Hope Davis) Algernon Charles Swinburne's "The Garden of Proserpine" ("From too much love of living,/From hope and fear set free,/We thank with brief thanksgiving/Whatever god may be/That no life lives for ever;/That dead men rise up never;/That even the weariest river/Winds somewhere safe to sea..."). Few children's films not only depict the discomfort of reality, but consider it and suggest a response.
To reconcile his feelings and do right by Duma, Xan sets off to fulfill his father's design. When the motorbike runs out of gas, the journey becomes a walkabout. The destination is the inevitable change of growth, a realization sped along when a mysterious exile named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker of Lord of War) happens upon the boy and his cat. A suspicious substitute father, Ripkuna injects the story with wry adult experience and ambiguity of intent. Together, the two men and Duma help each other to overcome peril in the wild and discover each's true nature (while a bush baby adds irresistible cuteness).
Loosely based on Xan and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft's memoir How It Was with Dooms, Duma magically blends realistic, striking nature photography (no special effects here) with unbelievable adventure, and the results should be captivating for middle-school aged children. By way of the world-weathered Ripkuna character, dollops of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island enrich Xan's uphill scramble into maturity, and Ballard once more commands completely credible and absorbing performances from his animal stars.
Duma has been all but orphaned by Warner Brothers, which failed to see the film's market potential. Sooner or later, every boy must learn that it's a cheetah-eat-gazelle world. But if audiences make their way to Duma, the world will have more such wonders in it, and less regurgitated family flicks with spanky attitudes, computer-generated beasts, and rubber souls.