In the tradition of "The Black Stallion" and "Fly Away Home" comes "Duma," a modern-day tale of a boy who journeys across Africa to return his pet cheetah to the wild.
Alex Michaletos, as Xan with the cheetah Duma. ( Warner Bros.)
Carroll Ballard, director of above films, has mastered the ability to tell stories with animals and children—two elements filmmakers are cautioned to avoid on account of the challenges they pose.
Ballard embraces them, and "Duma," which went into limited U.S. release April 22 with a wider roll-out planned, emerges a fine film. Ballard makes Xan (Alex Michaletos) and his cheetah—Duma, in Swahili—appear as naturals in front of the camera.
Michaletos, in his feature debut, carries the film in much the same way AnnaSophia Robb carried "Because of Winn-Dixie." These two films have similarities: Both are kid-animal buddy pictures, both are family friendly, both deal with serious family issues.
"Winn-Dixie" came from Walden Media, but "Duma" did not, though it feels like it (which is a compliment). Educational resources about this picture from Gaylord Films and Warner Bros. are available at the official Web site.
Loosely based on a children's book about the real Hopcraft family in Africa who cared for a cheetah, "Duma" is a coming-of-age story whose tagline is, "Some friendships are wilder than others."
The movie begins when Xan and his father (Campbell Scott) find a cheetah cub on the road. They take it back to their South African home and raise the cub there—until one day dad says Duma is almost grown and must therefore return to the wild, where he can live as he was meant to.
Family circumstances thwart Duma's calculated return to the African wild, and Xan eventually sets off on his own with Duma, hoping to take the beloved animal back to his native region around the Erongo Mountains.
Along the way, Xan and Duma encounter all manner of wild animals—giraffes, lions, crocodiles, hippos, hyenas, elephants. They also encounter a drifter named Rip (Eamonn Walker), who is shifty enough to make Xan withhold his trust, even though he's essentially lost in the desert and desperately needs help.
Strong performances, a soundtrack that bespeaks Africa, and terrific scenery all help make "Duma" a good, adventurous film.
It also tackles life transition, as Xan must deal with significant changes in his familial and social structure. As Rip says to Xan, "Change. That's what happens. All the time."
"Duma" isn't getting big press, but it has a seasoned director, a solid cast, a very fast cat—and a good narrative.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for mild adventure peril.
Director: Carroll Ballard
Writers: Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain
Cast: Xan: Alex Michaletos; Peter: Campbell Scott; Kristin: Hope Davis; Rip: Eamonn Walker.
The movie's official Web site is here.