Chances are excellent that Carroll Ballard’s latest film “Duma” isn’t playing in a theater anywhere near you. That’s a shame. It’s one of those rare children’s films that actually succeeds in delighting tots while making the parents who’ve accompanied them gasp in wonder.As a director Ballard is almost as unprolific in his 25-year career as Terrence Malick, but like Malick he has an amazing visual sense.
In addition, Ballard knows how to tell nature stories where the animals can be admired but the humans are never obscured.
From 1979’s “The Black Stallion” to his last effort “Fly Away Home,” his movies are as much about people solving their own emotional issues as they are about flora and fauna. This trend continues with “Duma,” with equally satisfactory results.
Ballard’s latest is about a white South African boy named Xan (talented newcomer Alexander Michaletos) who adopts an orphaned cheetah cub he and his rancher father (Campbell Scott) find on the highway.
While the cub practically grows into being a family pet, Xan, his father and his mother (Hope Davis) know the blissful arrangement can’t last. The father’s health is failing. And the cheetah, that’s named “Duma” or the Swahili word for cheetah, was literally born to be wild.
Xan abruptly takes it upon himself to take the large, speedy cat back into the wild. The journey to Duma’s proper habitat is arduous, and Xan winds up forming an uneasy friendship with a black drifter named Ripkuna (nicely played by British actor Eamonn Walker).
Just as “Fly Away Home” was as much about a father and daughter overcoming their estrangement as it was about helping baby geese, the complex relationship between Xan and Ripkuna gives “Duma” its heart and brain. Ripkuna, at times, tries to swindle Xan, but yet can be noble when the need arises.
Screenwriters Karen Janszen, Mark St. Germain and Carol Flint (working from the book How It Was with Dooms by Carol Cawthra Hopcraft and Xan Hopcraft) refuse to portray the contemporary situation in post-Apartheid in simplistic terms. They present both cultures in a respectful light without ever seeming preachy.
Ballard and the screenwriters also make minor characters who are interesting. Scott and Davis have relatively short screen time, but both leave vivid impressions. Ballard also reveals a lot of information about them through only fleeting glances. Only a brief shot of a scar on Scott’s head gives a viewer an indication of his character’s health, but it’s more than sufficient.
If you think Ballard’s tendency toward understatement will lose children, think again. My packed screening full of tots adored the film.
This subtlety helps make some of the more potentially traumatic or maudlin moments more involving than manipulative. Ballard assumes his viewers can make connections on their own, so watching Xan bond with Duma doesn’t feel like phony.
It also doesn’t hurt that Ballard’s eye for scenery is astonishing. Just when you’re wondering why the hungry Duma hasn’t made a meal of Xan or Ripkuna, Ballard and first-time cinematographer Werner Maritz expose viewers to one jaw-dropping shot after another.
I won’t go into detail decrying the folly of what Warner Bros. has done by nearly abandoning “Duma.” My fellow HBS monkey Peter Sobczynski has done a fine job explaining that in his own pieces about this film.The best way you can let Hollywood know you’d like to see children’s films that have wit and soul instead of product placement is by buying a ticket to “Duma.”