In a child's eyes, South Africa is teeming with lions, elephants and long-necked giraffes that roam across deserts, plains and jungles. This untamed picture of nature is what Carroll Ballard, who directed such animal classics as Black Stallion and Fly Away Home, brings to his long overdue return, Duma.
Xan (Alexander Michaeletos) and his dad (Campbell Scott) find an orphaned cheetah cub poised to become roadkill on a rural highway. They bring him home to their family farm and christen him Duma, the Swahili word for cheetah. Xan and the purring, snuggly, spotted little guy bond, but as the cheetah grows bigger, stronger and faster, it's clear he can't stay. Xan resists. A family tragedy, however, forces them to move to the city, and Xan and Duma don't adjust well. If a little lamb can't get away with following a kid to school, imagine what happens when a cheetah does. Xan runs off on his own to return Duma to the wild, and the two meet with all kinds of peril. They must decide whether to trust another wanderer (Oz's Eamonn Walker) who offers to help them. As the journey continues, Xan must also learn to let go, and to deal with loss, change and things he can't control.
Michaeletos takes on his role with relative ease, considering this was the then-12-year-old's acting debut. Having grown up on a South African farm with his own pet cheetahs, the first-time actor seems as natural cozying up to big cats as he does taking on dramatic moments with Scott, Walker and Hope Davis (who plays his mom). Would a young Macaulay Culkin have nonchalantly horsed around with a real, live, non-CGI cheetah as if it were a baby kitten? Not likely that wuss couldn't even handle a little aftershave.
When the film starts to feel long-winded and overdrawn, the movie's captivating sense of place the wilderness of South Africa takes over. Nature through Ballard's lens can be cuddly, creepy or cruel, but always beautiful. In Duma, he wholly transports the audience to a place where conveniences like cell phones, laptops and GPS systems aren't readily available. A catalogue of animals from antelopes to zebras gets screen time. First-time cinematographer Werner Maritz shows us landscapes that dazzle and inspire, as light drenches golden grassy fields and illuminates the crackled, dry salt flats.
As gorgeous as the daytime shots are, Ballard and company also play with nighttime fears. In the darkened wilderness, Xan is surrounded by all manner of squeals, grunts and growls, as we get glimpses of big cats and creepy crawlies just enough to raise the hair on your arms.
With real animals, real nature and authentic emotion, Ballard lets our imaginations get a workout as he reminds us, again, where the wild things are.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), during special family matinees at 2 and 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 4 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 5. Call 313-833-3237.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].