Never cry cheetah
Director Carroll Ballard’s movies always have been visual feasts, in keeping with Ballard’s training as a cinematographer. His is one of the least prolific careers of any director still considered active in movies: only six feature films in 26 years, and one of those was a filmed record of a performance of The Nutcracker, so it hardly counts. The others have not been so stage-bound, and most of them have in fact specialized in the great outdoors: The Black Stallion, based on Walter Farley’s novel for young readers; Never Cry Wolf, from Farley Mowat’s memoir of studying Arctic wolves; and Fly Away Home, with Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin helping a gaggle of geese fly south for the winter.
In all of Ballard’s films, story and character take a back seat to the visuals. As a result, they’ve often spent long months in the editing room while a workable version was hammered out (Never Cry Wolf spent so long in post-production, with so many retakes, that wags around the Disney Studios took to calling it Never Cry Wrap). Even his best-known and most successful film, The Black Stallion, though beautifully photographed, was the kind of movie adults think their children should see, rather than one that children actually enjoy (when I saw it, all the kids in the house were bored out of their minds and weren’t shy about showing it).
Ballard’s latest movie, Duma, previewed in early March but is only now hitting theaters. When I saw it, Ballard’s knack for boring small children was intact, but this time the movie is so dramatically inert that even the best-intentioned parents probably won’t require their kids to sit through it.
Like Fly Away Home, Duma takes its inspiration from a true story, but with so many fictional embellishments that it doesn’t even pretend to be factual. The basis for Carol Flint, Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain’s script is a book called How It Was with Dooms by 12-year-old Xan Hopcraft, with photographs by his mother, Carol Cawthra Hopcraft. The book told the story of Dooms, a domesticated cheetah who lived with the Hopcrafts on their game ranch in Kenya until Xan was 7.
In the film, this becomes the story of Duma, an orphaned cub discovered by 12-year-old Xan (Alexander Michaeletos) and his father, Peter (Campbell Scott), on a South African highway. They take the little cub home to their ranch, where it quickly becomes a member of the family. (Xan’s movie mother is Kristin, not Carol, and she’s played by Hope Davis.) When Duma is almost fully grown, Peter explains to Xan that they’ll have to return him to the wild so he can live as he was meant to. Xan, however, can’t bear to part with Duma.
When Peter dies suddenly, Kristin and Xan have to move to Johannesburg. When Duma unintentionally causes a panic at Xan’s new school, the boy realizes that his father was right, and he sets off on a motorcycle, with Duma riding in the sidecar, to take the cheetah back to where he belongs.
As you can see, the story is Born Free warmed over. The pictorials are as strong as we have come to expect from Ballard (with cinematography by Werner Maritz). After all, with all those stunning African vistas and noble animals striding to and fro, how could it miss? But the narrative is weaker than ever—so far-fetched that it strains the credulity of even the most undemanding child. Xan gets away with an awful lot of stupid mistakes in his trek across the wild—taking off on a motorcycle across the desert, for example, without bothering to check the gas in his tank. But God and the script are on his side; he stumbles upon the well-stocked wreckage of an airplane in the middle of nowhere just when he needs it most, and he finds a friend in the only other human being for about 20,000 square miles.
The film continues in that vein, piling one improbable coincidence on another, until Xan finally comes home, his mission accomplished (with him somehow having retrieved his motorcycle from the desert and found gas for it). The plot doesn’t bear close inspection, and the mumbled dialogue makes inspection more trouble than it’s worth anyway. Best just to admire the animals and drink in the scenery. Those always have been Ballard’s long suit.