The most astonishing thing about Duma isn't the film itself; it's how difficult it's been for this beautiful film to get into theaters where people can see it. Roger Ebert campaigned for the film back in August of last year, and at that time noted Warner Bros. exec Dan Fellman said the studio, which also distributed runaway success March of the Penguins, was disappointed in the film's box office returns. Fellman expressed surprise at the time that one film was so successful while the other struggled, in spite of positive response from audience members and critics alike.
Duma was directed by Carroll Ballard, who has previously made some great family films, including The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home. With Ballard at the helm giving us his hallmark spectacular landscapes and fantastic cinematography, and a compelling story about a boy and his cheetah, you'd think Duma would have had no trouble making its mark. Yet according to Box Office Mojo, Duma has currently brought in only $870,00 at the box office, compared to March of the Penguins gargantuan take of nearly $77.5 million. And having seen both films, I can't understand why, unless it just comes down to Penguins having a broader appeal or being better marketed.
Duma is a marvelous coming-of-age and journey tale about Xan (newcomer Alex Michaeletos) , a 12-year-old South African boy who, with his father, adopts an orphaned cheetah cub they find on the side of the road. Xan names the cub Duma, which is Swahili for cheetah, and in the great tradition of child-animal friendships in literature and on film, Xan and Duma soon bond and become devoted friends. Xan's father, Peter (Campbell Scott) is a somewhat eccentric South African farmer, adored by his wife and son. Peter tells his son when they decide to keep the cheetah cub that eventually they will have to return him to the wild, where he belongs. As the young cheetah grows, he and Xan form a unique bond, and Duma becomes a part of the family.
Then a shadow falls over the happy family. Peter becomes ill, and one day tells Xan the nearly-grown Duma must be returned to the wild before it's too late for him to learn how to hunt and survive. He shows Xan, on a map, the long journey they will take together to return Duma to the South African wilderness. Before they can begin their trip, though, Peter dies suddenly, and Xan's mother, Kristin (Hope Davis), is forced to move with her son to Johannesburg to find work. Duma, destined for a wildlife refuge, comes with them to the city for a few days until the wildlife refuge is able to send someone to get him. Duma escapes from the apartment and pays a visit to Xan's school, interrupting a group of bullies who are picking on his human friend. Every adult who was ever picked on in school will cheer inside as the bullies flee from the snarling cheetah, and wish they'd had a friend like Duma to back them up.
Unfortunately, the police come, and Xan and Duma make a narrow escape. Xan, still reeling from the loss of both his father and the peaceful farm he grew up on, decides to take Duma to his homeland by himself, and loads up the cheetah into the sidecar of his father's motorcycle to make the trip. Thus, the boy and his cheetah embark on an adventure that leads them across South Africa (the film was shot in no less than 75 locations), and Ballard treats his audience to a visual buffet of spectacular South African landscapes as Xan and Duma make their harrowing journey.
After Xan's motorbike runs out of gas, he takes shelter in a crashed plane, and meets up with Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker), a mysterious African man heading home to his village in disgrace after an unsuccessful attempt to make money for his family in the big city. Xan doesn't quite know what to make of Rip and whether he can trust him, but they join up to travel together, with the ever-faithful Duma acting as Xan's bodyguard. The relationship between Xan and Rip is one of the best parts of the film; Xan goes from distrusting Rip, to saving his life, to viewing him as a surrogate father, during the course of their adventure. Xan's journey across South Africa might seem unbelievable if it weren't for the fact that it's based on real life events in the life of the real Xan, who wrote the book on which the film is based.
The interaction between Xan and Duma is authentic and wonderful to watch, in no small part due to the fact that Michaeletos, who is South African, grew up on a farm with a slew of wild animals, including cheetahs. As part of the audition process, the boys who auditioned for the role of Xan had to interact with the cheetahs, and Michaeletos, who was cast after an exhaustive international search, had no trouble getting up close and personal with the big cats. Michaeletos turns in a believable and moving performance; the film also benefits from excellent casting in Scott and Davis, although by the nature of the story, they don't have a lot of screen time. Walker gives the best performance of the film as Rip, a complex character who has gotten lost along his life journey and both wants desperately and fears to return home.
The real star of Duma, though, is Ballard, whose incredible vision has created a spectacular visual treat layered on top of a fascinating story. In an age when so many family films are reheated leftovers served up from children's television shows, what a refreshing change it is to be able to share a film like Duma with your kids. Don't be misled by thinking of Duma as strictly a family film, though - better than half of the capacity crowd I saw the film with were adults there without children, and they enjoyed it as much - perhaps more - than the younger set. Duma is that rare breed of film that's enjoyable no matter what your age. If it comes to a theater near you, consider yourself lucky, and get thee to a screening. Duma is exactly the kind of film Hollywood should make more of - but as long as people flock to the latest Rugrats big screen spectacle while ignoring really good movies, lovely films like Duma will be an endangered species.