Advance word pegged the cheetah-and-boy saga Duma as a classic that Warner Bros. wouldn’t allow to run free. It’s tempting to champion the film—because it is handcrafted and subtle when most family films are crass and loud, because to praise it is to value art over the commercial demands of a calculating industry, and because its director is Carroll Ballard, America’s foremost (only?) bard of child-animal buddy pictures. But Duma turns out to be surprisingly flat, with little of the child’s-eye imagery that gave The Black Stallion its poetic thrust and too much of the narrative gear-grinding that grounded stretches of Fly Away Home. (While Duma is by no means hard on the eyes, the absence of the earlier films’ cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, is immediately apparent.) After his hale-looking father (Campbell Scott) dies of some unspecified malady, Xan (Alexander Michaletos) and his mother (Hope Davis) relocate to the city, which Xan decides isn’t an optimal environment for his cheetah friend Duma. The two run away to the wilderness, where they encounter a possibly unscrupulous diamond hunter (Eamonn Walker). Huck Finn–ish mutual education ensues.
The film’s morals—about responsibility, trust, family, and what Werner Herzog would call “the overwhelming indifference of nature”—are never belabored, but Ballard is too lyrical a filmmaker for the straightforward approach he adopts here. A shot of a spider scurrying across Xan’s face has more frisson than all the Born Free episodes put together, and only a few sequences, including a tsetse swarm of biblical proportions, hint at the primal odyssey Duma might have been. There’s an edgier animalistic coming-of-age film out soon; it has both a squid and a whale.