Big cat brings out big heart

Staff WriterDecember 23, 2005 

Alex Michaletos, in his first screen role, is terrific as Xan, a boy who makes a mission of returning an or-phaned cheetah to the wild.

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Movies about kids and animals tend to be so over: Over-sentimental (Jesse and Willy), over-humanized (Timmy and Lassie) or over-anthropomorphized (Eliza and Darwin). Mention there's a new movie out about a boy/girl who befriends a whale/collie/monkey/cute-critter-du jour, and those who don't embrace a Hallmark approach to life reflexively raise a skeptical eyebrow.

"Duma," the latest entry in the genre, proves to be an exception. And it offers a clue as to what is wrong with so many others of its kind: too much yakking.

"Duma" is the tale of 12-year-old Xan (played by first-timer Alex Michaletos), who finds an orphaned cheetah cub near the family farm in South Africa. Dad (Campbell Scott) says Xan can raise the cub but must set the cat free when it becomes an adult. "We can't keep him forever," Dad says. "Like your mom and I can't keep you forever."

Adulthood for Duma (Swahili for cheetah) comes quickly, and Dad announces it's time for the cat to re-enter his natural habitat. Xan balks, but his protest is cut short by an illness that takes his dad's life. Mom (Hope Davis) and Xan must move to the city; for expedience sake, Mom decides Duma will go to a preserve.

But Xan is intent on returning Duma to his original stomping grounds, so he commandeers his late dad's sidecar motorcycle and he and Duma set out across savannah and desert to Duma's mountain home.

All that said, it's remarkable how little is actually said up to this point.

Xan is a thoughtful youth who uses words wisely, sparingly. He gets that from his mom and dad. To figure out what's on Duma's mind, you're left to interpret his gazes, his curious cock of head, his occasional lip-smack (suggesting his feral inner cat is stirring). Not a narrative interpretation of Duma's deepest thoughts or a thought bubble to be had.

Only when Xan's path crosses with Rip (Eamonn Walker) is there an uptick in dialogue. Rip is wandering the desert like a nomad, his possessions strapped to his back. His story is unclear at first, and Xan is weary. They talk some, but rely heavily on body language, facial expression and actions to get a feel for each other.

Much of the movie's message is conveyed visually, a testament to director Carroll Ballard ("The Black Stallion," "Fly Away Home") and the acting.

Though "Duma" is as much about the relationship of Xan and Rip as it is about Xan and Duma, what sets this movie apart from others of its kind is Michaletos' ease with Duma, suggesting a genuine relationship that needn't be fleshed out with sentimental dialogue. Perhaps this is because Michaletos himself was raised on a South African farm in the company of cheetahs and other wild critters.

"Duma" differs from other cuddly critter tales in many respects, but it shares one commonality: a feel-good ending. It just takes a quieter path to get there.

Reach Joe Miller at 812-8450 or jmiller@newsobserver.com.

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