Starring: Alex Michaeletos, Eamonn Walker, Campbell Scott & Hope Davis
Written by: Karen Janszen & Mark St. Germain
Based on the Book “How It Was WIth Dooms” by: Carol Cawthra Hopcraft & Carol Cawthra Hopcraft
Directed by: Carroll Ballard
Running Time: 1hr 40mins
WINNER – Genesis Awards: Best Feature Film
I tried to make a film that, you know, people my own age would find entertaining and interesting as well as… young children. –Director Carroll Ballard–
Respected Los Angeles TImes film critic, Kenneth Turan had DUMA tied for “The Best Film of 2005.”
DUMA is the perfect example of the kind of film that this website was designed to represent. Because of Warner Bros.’s lack of faith in one of the best family films of 2005, it was released in very few theaters domestically (42 total – less than one per state) and even though some of the top movie reviewers in the country had nothing but praise for it (It currently holds a certified fresh score of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes), not enough people seem to know of its existence. As I sat down to rewatch DUMA for the first time in over 15 years, I have to admit that I was a little worried that maybe I didn’t remember my first experience with the film correctly. After all, if it was as good as I remembered, then why did the studio have so little faith in it and treat it so poorly during its initial release? Also, why is it that to this day, it hasn’t received a Blu-Ray release (don’t worry, it is streaming)? Sorry, Warner Bros., but I have to let everyone know that as the closing credits began, I started to realize that the executives in charge not only blew it all the way back in 2005 but continue to do so even now. The movie holds up incredibly well as an exciting and emotional adventure and is in desperate need of a proper re-release of some kind so that audiences can be introduced to and experience one of the best live-action family films of the last 20 years.
Based on a true story, DUMA begins with a baby cheetah, who, after losing his mother, wanders out onto a road and is nearly hit by a car driven by 12-year-old Xan’s (Alex Michaeletos) father, Peter (Campbell Scott). Realizing that the animal is all alone, Xan’s parents agree to let him take care of the cheetah until he is old enough to return to the wild. But, when that time comes, Xan has become too attached to the animal he now calls Duma (which we learn is Swahili for cheetah) and doesn’t want to see him go. Peter explains that Duma is a wild animal and needs “to live the life he was born to,” causing Xan to reluctantly agree, but before they have a chance to make the trip together, Peter, who has been very sick, passes away. Then, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, Xan realizes that he still must do what is right for Duma and decides to make the perilous trip through the African plains on his own in order to return Duma to where he really belongs.
The film’s director, Carroll Ballard, has created some of cinema’s greatest movies centered around a human’s relationship with the animals that he/she encounters. Films like THE BLACK STALLION, NEVER CRY WOLF and FLY AWAY HOME are incredible achievements in storytelling and DUMA is a beautifully imagined addition to them. With his writers, Karen Janszen & Mark St. Germain, Carroll has created a marvelous family film. With themes that explore the ideas of love and loss along with the importance of discovering where it is in the world that we as individuals truly belong, DUMA’s script refuses to fall into the trap of talking down to its younger audience. It’s an adventure story that’s both intelligent and thought-provoking, qualities that will appeal to the parents who sit down to enjoy the film along with their kids.
The trek that Xan and Duma set out on is not an easy one as the pair are forced to deal with a lot of dangerous obstacles along the way. From a rafting trip down a river filled with both perilous rapids and killer crocodiles to an encounter with a swarm of blood-sucking tsetse flies, the film has its fair share of adventurous thrills. At one point, Xan is forced to hike through some Jungleland alone at night, surrounded by the wildlife that roams about in the shadows and Werner Maritz’s dark cinematography, along with an incredible sound design, effectively creates an atmosphere that is both very real and very scary.
The most interesting aspect of the film is Duma himself. Played by 6 real cheetahs, Duma feels like the real thing. I know that Hollywood would like us all to believe that the use of CGI animals is just as effective in a film, but there’s something about watching a real live animal perform that allows us to better connect with them. As you look into their eyes, you can sense a real soul staring back at you. More importantly though, is the fact that Duma is not just a cute and cuddly animal that’s placed in the story to help drive Xan’s emotional journey forward, as he actually has his own inner struggles to deal with as well. His is a journey of self-discovery which slowly leads him away from the habits of a domesticated pet and down the path to becoming the wild animal that he was born to be. Xan’s father reminds us, “He’s a wild animal, remember? His wildness is something he knows without even knowing it. It’s in his bones. It’s in his blood. Like memory, yeah?” and as viewers get to witness this rediscovery of Duma’s true self, it really is a truly satisfying experience.
Alex Michaeletos plays Xan. He is an interesting choice for the role because one of the most important elements of the film comes from the feeling of a genuine relationship between Xan and Duma and the casting of Alex had a major advantage that helped achieve this. He was a boy who, in real life, felt very comfortable around the cheetahs that were being used to play Duma and we can only assume that this is because he, according to Ballard, had 5 cheetahs of his own (one of whom was used in the part of Duma a lot of the time). Alex’s familiarity and comfort with the animals is really evident in his performance as viewers are given some really authentic moments between Xan and Duma and there genuinely seems to be a real bond between the two, making their journey and the meaning behind it more powerful.
Along the way, we are also introduced to a third major character in the story as Xan encounters an African man named Ripkuna, who is also wandering through the African plain. Played with a certain amount of complexity by Eamonn Walker (OZ), Ripkuna is not all he seems to be and, at first, is very hard to figure out. Does he genuinely want to help Xan? Are there ulterior motives that have caused Ripkuna to join the journey? Could he be hoping to sell Duma for a quick payday when they reach the nearest village? Of course, the answers are more complicated than one would expect as Ripkuna turns out to be a man with an interesting story of his own and as things are revealed and the characters get to know each other, a whole new emotional element begins to surface, adding a whole new level of humanity to the film.
DUMA is a must-see live-action family film that deserved much more respect from the studio that made it. I was lucky enough to see it in a theater during its initial release and remember an audience of about 10 in the theater with me. It was one adult who had decided to bring her children and their friends to see the film. As I sat there enjoying the adventure that was unfolding in front of me, I decided to turn around and see how the kids were reacting. Every one of them was literally wide-eyed, staring at the screen. DUMA was working its magic on them. So, I say to the executives over at Warner Bros., have a little more faith in your product and, who knows, the reaction to a movie like DUMA might just surprise you.
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It looks like it will be a good one!