Duma (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Carroll Ballard
viewed: 03/20/10

When this film first caAdd an Imageme out five years ago, my kids were considerably younger, but the reviews stayed with me, which were very positive and I long planned to view it with them.  In our visits to the DVD-shop, I’d occasionally pointed it out to Felix, who either claimed to have seen it or offered other forms of disinterest.  So, when the occasion arrived, I decided to just rent the damn thing and show it to them and see what they thought.

They really enjoyed it.

Directed by Carroll Ballard who has made few films but almost all of them films for children about humans and animals, all of which have been well-received and yet unseen by me, including The Black Stallion (1979), Never Cry Wolf (1983), and Fly Away Home (1996).  This film concerns the relationship between a boy and a cheetah.  Perhaps not supremely high in pure originality but this film is made with great humanism, integrity, and care.

Set in South Africa, a young boy and his father come across an orphaned cheetah cub while traveling across country.  They take the cub home to their farm and raise it as a pet or sibling, though the father tells the son that it is a wild animal whose nature requires it to return to the wilderness when it grows up.  Unfortunately, when this time comes, the dad dies and the child and his mother are forced to lease the farm and move to the city, which unsurprisingly turns out to be no place for a cheetah.  So the boy picks up his father’s mantle and decides to return the cheetah to the location where they found it (leaving his mom a note).

Across the African landscape, the boy take the cheetah north and east in an old motorcycle with a passenger attachment.  Of course, they run out of petrol and wind up in the desert wilderness, where they meet a traveling tribesman, looking to return to his tribe from an attempt at making a go of life in the city.  The man is a little threatening and disconcerting in that he wants to cash in on the cheetah rather than purely help the lad.  But after a series of adventures, they wind up developing a close relationship.

It’s not that the concept is so unique.  Perhaps we have seen things like this before (though maybe not with a cheetah).  I was brought to mind occasionally of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), though the film is not so transcendant nor meaningful, but the white child in the bush with a native of the land have parallels that are not ridiculous to draw together.

The film starts wordlessly with the world of the cheetahs and the baboons and lions, how the mother of the babies is killed by the hunting lion pride.  And the story is told in an earnest and naturalistic way, cutting out the uber cliches about life and meaning, and yet still touching upon the nature of life and death.  It’s a rare thing, an animal film, that insults no one’s intelligence.  I’m not trying to get into the politics of animal protection here, but to say that it does a fine job in its way.

The kids actually loved it.  Clara was gaga over the baby cheetah and they both loved the bush baby than joins the group.  They were totally wound up when the got dumped into the river with the crocodiles and had to fight their way to shore.  The films glimpses the broad range of the major animals of the African landscape from ostriches and rhinos to hippos and hyenas, lions, baboons, warthogs, giraffes.

This is a rock solid film of its kind.  The kind of children’s film about the realtionship between a child and an animal, a child and the concept of the wild vs. the tamed, a child and the understanding of life and death.  It’s not perhaps the utterly transcendently amazing type of film, but it is the kind of film you can watch with your children and not feel dirty afterward.

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