Of a piece with director Carroll Ballard's earlier children's fare The Black Stallion (1979) and Never Cry Wolf (1983), Duma ravishes both the eye and the heart with stunning African desert photography and a tender yet unsentimental appreciation for the human and animal kingdoms alike. As with those other films, Ballard (who never uses CGI) has managed to forge a mysteriously intimate bond with a beast. Here, it's a cheetah that, after losing its mother to a lion, becomes the adopted companion of a young South African boy, Xan (Michaeletos), who knows he must eventually return the big cat to its natural habitat, the Kalahari.
Ballard's work with the cheetahs ("Duma" is actually played by four of them) is ingenious, evincing expressions of serenity and abandonment that should captivate any viewer with a functioning ticker. But the human drama, expanded into an adventure from Xan Hopcraft's 1997 memoir, is equally gripping, with Xan, joined by Duma, running away from home after his dad (Scott) dies unexpectedly. Coming of age en route to Duma's new turf, the boy forges an uneasy friendship with a tribesman (Lord of War's Walker) who may have ulterior plans for the cat.
Given the superb entertainment here, it's worth noting that Warner Bros. only recently decided to give the film a modest New York release, after being pressured by critics and early audiences. One wonders what standard of quality the studio is using to cram The Island into thousands of theaters, but not this.—Joshua Rothkopf