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Duma

Posted by martinteller on August 11, 2015

Based on a true story (but don’t ask me how much of it is faithful to the actual events).  Alex Michaeletos plays a South African boy named Xan who adopts a lost cheetah cub.  He names the cub “Duma” and bonds with the animal, but his father (Campbell Scott) reminds him that Duma must return to the wild before he gets too old to assimilate.  Then the father dies of an illness, and Xan’s mother (Hope Davis) wants to put Duma in the hands of a nature preserve.  Insistent on fulfilling his father’s wishes, Xan runs away into the wild with the cheetah, and encounters a wandering figure named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker).

It’s not hard to spot a running theme throughout Carroll Ballard’s directorial career.  His 1979 feature debut (what most, including myself, consider his masterpiece) The Black Stallion concerns a young boy and his bond with a wild horse.  In 1983, Never Cry Wolf told the story of a man and his bond with wild wolves. 1996’s Fly Away Home is about a young girl and her bond with wild geese.  And so in 2005, Ballard again returns to explore the relationship between humans and the animals they grow attached to.

It’s something he’s really good at.  His movies are never about trying to make the animals more human.  Always he — and the characters he puts before us — respect the wildness of these creatures, demonstrating how an animal and a human can love each other, but there is always an otherness that divides them.  Xan respects Duma’s innate need to be a cheetah, and Duma appears to enjoy Xan’s company for the time being.  The recognition of the inherent gulf between their species does not make their mutual affection any less touching.

However, Ballard’s films show a steady decline in quality.  The photography is stunningly beautiful as always, there is genuine joy in the bond between Xan and Duma, and genuine thrills in their adventures with Ripkuna.  Fine performances from Walker and Michaeletos.  But the narrative feels all too episodic, making it feel like a collection of anecdotes rather than a developing story with an arc.  Out of one scrape, into another, this happened and then that happened.  Ticking off the beats of the plot.  Enjoyable, but less stirring than Ballard’s previous works.  Rating: Good (72)

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6 Responses to “Duma”

  1. I like the idea of the film but I am disappointed to hear that Carroll Ballard doesn’t quite pull it off. The relationship between animals and people is well covered in film, sometimes very successful, and sometimes not, and I feel that because of this it can be hard to stand out, move beyond the cliche, and say something different.

    • I think Ballard manages to avoid cliche here, but he isn’t doing much that he hadn’t done before. Much of it is familiar if you’ve seen his other films.

      • I have seen Fly Away Home a long time ago and at the time I enjoyed it. I will still definitely give this a watch though, a heartwarming tale of animal/human relationships is sometimes just what you need!

  2. smirnoff said

    I do hope Wind is still at least on the outskirts of your radar. Sailing, as I’m sure you’ll agree after your positive experience watching Deep Water, is a sport with the potential to be terrifically cinematic. And Wind is a truly striking example of that. Combined with Basil Poledouris’ rousing score, it’s hard to feel the call of the wild tugging at your soul. The drama of the story is not terribly surprising, it is a sports movie after all, but as these things go I think it’s quite a good one.

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