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'Duma': A Boy and a Cheetah


Director Carroll Ballard has a new film out, and if you remember his earlier success like "The Black Stallion" and "Fly Away Home," you won't be surprised that animals play a central part. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan has this review.


Carroll Ballard's "Duma" is just the kind of film audiences say they hunger for. It's an enormously entertaining story of a boy and his cheetah that is every bit as involving for adults as it is for younger viewers. But despite that, "Duma" is currently being released only in Los Angeles and New York. Because its concerns are timeless instead of trendy, "Duma" is by definition unfashionable. Because it's a family film with texture and complexity, it's too difficult for studio machinery geared to exploit the simplistic and the one-dimensional.

As with all Ballard films, "Duma" is the work of a magician. He's a director capable of joining visual poetry with matter-of-fact plausibility. He uses the world of animals to give us moving insights into our own. Simultaneously innocent and sophisticated, this honestly emotional fable shows why every Ballard film is a special event. Given his gift for working wonders with animals, it was inevitable that Ballard would eventually make a film in Africa where the wildlife is abundant. A young boy and his family adopt an orphaned baby cheetah named Duma, with the understanding that it will have to return to the wild someday.

(Soundbite of "Duma")

Mr. CAMPBELL SCOTT: (As Xan's father) He's nearly too old to survive out there. Duma's got to live the life he was born to, so to we got to take him back now.

ALEXANDER MICHALETOS: (As Xan) He doesn't want to go. He doesn't want to be wild.

Mr. SCOTT: You can't decide that for him, Xan.

TURAN: That day comes sooner and in different form than anyone expects. The great adventure of "Duma" is the boy's journey, forced on him by events out of his control, to take the animal back to nature by himself.

Director Ballard was clearly entranced by the opportunity to shoot with cheetahs, the fastest as well as one of the most regal animals on Earth. What makes Ballard's film stand out, however, is his ability to add dramatic tension to this photogenic mix with the arrival of a surly drifter played by Eamonn Walker.

(Soundbite of "Duma")

MICHALETOS: (As Xan) My dad and I found him over here.

Mr. EAMONN WALKER: (As drifter) So you plan to cross the Okavango(ph).

MICHALETOS: (As Xan) Yeah. So?

Mr. WALKER: (As drifter) Yeah. So? That is a place of many teeth, my friend. It is a place to die.

MICHALETOS: (As Xan) I'm not afraid.

Mr. WALKER: (As drifter) Be smart. Be afraid.

TURAN: It is a mark of Walker's skill as an actor and Ballard's toughness as a director that, from moment to moment, it's far from clear whether the drifter plans to help or hinder the boy.

To see "Duma," or to ask your local theater to show it, is to vote for the kinds of pictures you want to be seeing in the future. You can either send Hollywood a message in the only language it understands, or resign yourself to a lifetime of "Dukes of Hazzard" retreads. Stark as it sounds, those are your choices.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan is a film critic for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

From "Wallace & Gromit" to "A History of Violence," you can hear NPR film reviews and features on the Movies page on our Web site, npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep in New Orleans, I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.
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