PG for mild adventure peril
September 30th, 2005
Action/Adventure, Drama and
Hope Davis, Campbell Scott,
Alex Michaeletos, Eamonn Walker, Nthabiseng Kenoshi
Warner Bros. Pictures
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By Nathaniel Bell
Carroll Ballard’s work seems to exist in a category
by itself. Where most films aimed at family audiences are formulaic,
his are mythical. Where others are thoughtless, his are pensive.
Over the years, filmgoers have been conditioned to expect less
from their entertainment. This is especially true in regards to
children’s pictures, a genre in which mediocrity has become
embraced as the norm. Given these circumstances, Duma
seems like a departure from typical family fare, when in fact
it should be considered the standard. Once again, Ballard’s
mythical approach to filmmaking—his complete lack of cynicism
and refusal to succumb to the demands of popular culture—works
beautifully in his favor.
The Black Stallion, which Ballard directed in 1979,
has the enduring quality of a classic because the universality
of the emotions, the timelessness of the story, and the intense
beauty of the images do not pander to a specific age group. Like
an archetypal fairy tale, it only grows more meaningful with age.
Likewise, his 1996 film Fly Away Home, with its grownup
theme about the responsibility of parenthood, is arguably more
rewarding for adults than it is for children, although kids will
no doubt be enthralled by its simple yet elegant storyline. Duma
is Ballard’s first narrative film in nine years, and it
is marked by a similar respect for its audience.
In rural South Africa, 12-year-old Xan (a winning, natural performance
by newcomer Alexander Michaletos) finds an orphaned cheetah in
the middle of the road. His parents (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis,
who each gather sympathy in their usual quiet way) allow him to
keep it. When calamity unexpectedly strikes, Xan feels compelled
to leave his home and escort the cub (which he has named Duma)
back to the wild where it belongs. In his travels, he encounters
a weary traveler (wonderfully played by Eamonn
Walker) who may have different plans for Xan and his animal companion.
Duma is a deceptively simple film, starting out along
conventional lines and then slowly deepening to reveal itself
in layers. Like Ballard’s previous films, it feels alive
to the realities of growing up, the pain of separation, and the
tragedy of loss. It is also uncommonly aware of the astonishing,
sometimes cruel beauty of nature, where animals prey upon each
other and regard their human adversaries with cool indifference.
Conversely, it pays tribute to the inexplicable spiritual bond
that has been known to develop between man and beast.
Many critics—including Roger Ebert—have fought hard
for the film to receive a theatrical release. Now that their efforts
have finally paid off (the film is currently playing in Los Angeles
and New York), Duma probably won’t be around for
much longer. Poor box office numbers have sounded the death knell
for this lovely and sincere little picture. If you prefer your
entertainment tender, wise, and serenely beautiful, you had best
catch Duma before it becomes relegated to the back shelves
of video stores, where the rest of Ballard’s films remain,
waiting to be rediscovered.
Nathaniel Bell is a film critic in Southern California. Review
used by permission.
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