Once more with felines

The Associated PressJune 25, 2004 

Instead of taking the kids to "Garfield: The Movie," consider "Two Brothers," starring real cool cats.

Director/co-writer Jean-Jacques Annaud, who made the lovely 1989 nature tale "The Bear," returns to the difficult art of the live-animal adventure and delivers another winner.

"Two Brothers" is a gorgeously filmed, deceptively simple story of tiger cubs separated in youth, then reunited years later, initially as enemies -- all through brutish human action.

Deliberately spare in plot and characterization, the film evokes a sense of childlike innocence and wonder without tumbling too heavily into sappy sentiment.

Annaud and writing partner Alain Godard craft just enough engaging human interaction with their feline leads to keep the film from devolving into a National Geographic portrait. The bipeds sometimes behave villainously, but none are true villains, just opportunists out of touch with nature and ripe for a comic upbraiding by the animal kingdom.

Shot largely in Cambodia and set in the early 20th century, the film stars Guy Pearce as Aidan McRory, a big-game hunter and treasure seeker whose jungle expedition stumbles on a tiger family living among the ruins of an ancient temple.

McRory takes time out from pillaging priceless statues to kill the papa tiger and briefly adopt Kumal, a fearless cub who ends up imprisoned at a circus and trained to leap through hoops of fire.

Mama tiger flees with Sangha, Kumal's meek brother. Later captured, Sangha finds a happy home as pet for the son of the regional governor. But his wild nature lands Sangha in the menagerie of the local prince, whose animal trainer cruelly spoils the cub's gentle disposition and turns him into a ferocious fighter.

A year later, the prince's grown tiger squares off against a traveling circus cat in a duel to the death to amuse a human crowd. Sangha storms into the ring a bloodthirsty predator. Kumal, his spirit sapped by pitiless training for his circus routines, enters a cringing coward desperate to avoid his savage opponent.

A revival of "The Waltons" could not be more heartfelt than the family reunion that follows among the big cats. The movie's third act has scenes of marvelous comedy, grave tension and obligatory lessons to be learned for some of the humans who dared to vaunt superiority over the jungle realm.

The movie's peaceable-kingdom closing image is a teary work of art, and Annaud follows it with the movie's sole bit of preachiness, a note that only about 5,000 tigers roam the wild today, down from 100,000 a century ago.

Enormous credit belongs to animal wrangler Thierry Le Portier, who worked with Annaud on "The Bear" and trained the many tigers in "Two Brothers." The expressions, actions and vocalizations of the tigers range from crafty and comical to heartbreaking and tragic. Under Le Portier's direction, the cats became true actors.

As family films go, "Two Brothers" is a sweet, rhapsodic alternative to the cheeky sarcasm of "Shrek 2" and "Garfield" or the dark-tinged terror of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

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