Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sunday supplement editors clamor for more good children's fare in the movie marketplace, and not without reason: In the collapsing film industry there are only a few pigeonholed categories left for a movie to fit into. Kid's fare these days is more often than not animated, hyperactive and has a sassy sense of humor. Last year there appeared a number of calls for the movie Duma to be given a release. Carroll Ballard's 1979 The Black Stallion had been a sensational sleeper hit. This movie has a similar boy plus wild animal theme and reels of breathtaking natural visuals, but didn't inspire the industry to risk the expense of a major release on it. 1
As it turns out, Duma is an attractive but not exceptional old-fashioned youth film made with familiar elements: A long journey, a kid coming of age and a noble animal friend. One wants to champion a new kid film that isn't cynical, violent or obsessed with bathroom humor, but Duma just isn't as exciting as it might be. The story has been done better before.
Xan (Alexander Michaletos) raises the Cheetah cub he found on the road, and names him Duma. When the cat grows up the time comes to take him back to the wild, but a family crisis makes that impossible. Realizing that the authorities will seize the cat, Xan runs away to undertake a personal return-and-release mission. Lost in the desert, he meets Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker), who promises to help Xan but might be more interested in turning him in for the reward.
Savant has recommended several pictures similar to Duma. There is of course The Black Stallion with its impressive music and non-verbal visual storytelling. Duma may have started out with a minimalist dialogue script but the final film has plenty of voiceover, particularly as the cat is growing up, and at the wrap-up finale. Duma has nothing to compare with the earlier picture's thrilling horse race, an emotional release that worked like magic. The impression left at the end of Duma is of someone closing a storybook with a very forgettable moral.
Another movie one thinks of while one's mind drifts during Duma is Alexander Mackendrick's wonderful Sammy Going South, known in the U.S. as A Boy Ten Feet Tall. In that picture a kid becomes separated from his mother during the 1956 Suez crisis in (if I remember correctly) Egypt. Convinced that he's now an orphan, he goes on a journey South, all the way through Africa to an Aunt in Durban. Sammy's interesting adventures include a stint with a crusty diamond smuggler (Edward G. Robinson). The movie is liberating for young kids because the immature Sammy grows self-reliant and worldly-wise, eventually reaching his destination as an independent world traveler, a real hero.
By contrast, the undeniably well intentioned Duma seems predigested and sanitized. There is no larger context for the story. Xan lives in an idealized world with his parents on a picture-postcard farm where his father has plenty of free time to play with him and indulge his new pet. Farming seems to be little more than riding a tractor; Dad (Campbell Scott) has no hired help but can afford to feed this enormous housecat pet. Ask any zookeeper and you'll find that the meat bill in the lion house is staggering.
The Black Stallion was heavily stylized but still took place in the real world. Duma filters everything through a rosy picture-book mentality, like the superficial "legendary" boyhood section of Superman: The Movie. Dad's health problem is covered in two or three fast scenes. Mom and Xan take Duma to the city for a rather ridiculous passage where the cat is left in an apartment attended by a skittish relative. Duma beelines it to Xan's school in time to save him from some school bullies. Somehow avoiding a SWAT team, they escape together undetected across an entire city and without resources make it back to Dad's farm. Boy and super-kitty take off in Dad's sidecar motorcycle on a photogenic journey back to Cheetah country.
That, of course, is the same basic structure as the seminal Born Free, where a pair of naturalists raise a pack of rowdy lion cubs and then have a difficult emotional time giving up a lioness named Elsa. The somewhat fantastic movie is rooted in the truth about animals in nature; its biggest drawback is the promotion of the idea that wild animals can make cuddly pets. Both Elsa and Duma are essentially wild animals quite capable of turning a kid like Xan into sushi the moment hunger clicks in. Next stop, Grizzly Man.
Duma does make some good points about the difference between pets and wild beasts. Eamonn Walker's African helps Xan understand that Duma is becoming more feral as they continue into the wild. The lions of the veldt are no laughing matter and the travelers must build fires to avoid becoming late-night snacks. Although Xan seems relatively unaffected by hunger, thirst or the sun, we do see an impressive Tsetse fly attack. The most memorable aspect of the desert trek is when the travelers rig a parachute to the motorcycle and zip across a dry lakebed under sail. That's one light motorcycle, or one very strong wind; and it isn't as exhilarating as riding a grand stallion through the surf.
Xan reaches Ripkuna's village, which is no more culturally challenging than an antiseptic ethnic exhibit in a museum. Everyone is scrubbed clean and the homes are spotless; the people could come from the Swahili version of Sesame Street. Rip's wife looks like a fashion model. There's nothing much to be learned from this village except to wonder why Rip ever left in the first place, went to the city and got in trouble with the law.
Xan has a dull reunion with his Mom, while Duma avoids the lions of the veldt (through some cheesy-looking CGI composites) and meets up with the Cheetah of his dreams, a dreamboat cat that appears on a grassy hill like Jennifer Jones in Love is a Many Splendored Thing. But Duma still has the polite movie-pet instincts to play a farewell scene with Xan.
Of course, Savant is having evil thoughts while all of these pleasant, pat scenes go down. When Duma bids farewell to his human buddy, how come Mrs. Duma doesn't use the kid to teach her new mate the basics of chowing down in the brush?
At one point, foster pal Xan exalts when Duma brings down a wildebeest (?) on his own, proving that the cat still has his killer feral instincts. I can imagine Xan hearing cries off screen, and meeting little Janice. She's the heroine of another cute animal story about a girl who raises an adorable Wildebeest baby she names Wally. In this parallel story, Wally teaches Janice the meaning of family before she takes him back to his home on the savannah, or wherever. The ending to Wally was meant to be more upbeat, until Janice's tale had the misfortune to meet up with Xan's story.
Duma's heart is in the right place, but it just isn't moving. There are no emotional highs like The Black Stallion bonding with the kid on the beach, or Sammy's triumphant homecoming in Durban. Instead we get familiar images and forgettable homilies on the soundtrack.
The photography in Duma is really pretty, and for animal lovers who want to fantasize about living with a Cheetah it's probably unbeatable. Duma is played by five different cats, all of which look like the feline equivalent of high-fashion models. Lean, furry and entirely self-composed, Duma can run at 100 kph. (We're a little shocked until we realize it's not mph) The animal coordination scenes are well done and not hyped with unnecessary gags or anthropomorphic baloney, although Ripkuna does bring along an adorable, giant-eyed little creature (a Bushbaby?) for zoological variety.
Warners' DVD of Duma is a fine enhanced transfer of a film with rich browns and reds, and beautiful close-ups of Duma's inexpressive mask of a face, with the two black stripes that look like the tracks of his tears. The extras include some scene extensions and a trailer. The cover illustration displays Duma wearing Ripkuna's knit cap in an attempt to give the animal some personality. Alas, in most of the picture Duma remains as aloof as your average housecat. He's just more difficult to catch.
Duma is also available in a Full-Screen flat edition.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good -
Supplements: Extended scenes, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 11, 2006
1. This presents an opportunity to mention the good work of a friend. Before Randall William Cook went to work for Peter Jackson in New Zealand and earned all those awards, he directed a low-budget adolescent thriller about kids tangling with an animated demon in a haunted house. It's called Demon in the Bottle and it starred a well-known young TV actress. It's clever, funny and had some ingenious effects, digital and practical. It's easily the equivalent of Equinox but with a better story and much better directed actors. Disney liked Bottle enough to snap it up -- but then released it in a only couple of foreign markets, scotching its maker's plans to use it to kick start a directing career.
This happens a lot now, whether a noted director like Ballard with a big picture is involved, or a fellow like Cook who breaks through with good work. You finish a feature, a studio snaps it up, and then a committee might decide to shelve it or make it a "DVD Exclusive!" -- in Brazil. For Carroll Ballard, after all that work, it must have seemed like being told by your new manager, "Tonight ain't your night -- we're going for the price on Wilson."
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson