Schmaltzy but heartfelt, "Duma" follows in the tradition of other kid-and-animal movies.
Director Carroll Ballard needs three things to make one of his family flicks: a kid, an animal and a trip. The trio worked for "Fly Away Home" in 1996, "The Black Stallion" in 1979 and now for "Duma."
The film, which takes its title from the Swahili term for cheetah, is set in South Africa, where a youngster adopts an orphaned cheetah cub and tends it until he concedes, albeit reluctantly, that it's time to return the animal to its natural habitat, something that turns out to be a lot harder -- physically and emotionally -- than he expected.
The story is credited to Xan Hopcraft's book "How It Was With Dooms." It was subtitled "A True Story From Africa," but don't be misled by that. The movie is pure fiction. Although the protagonist is named Xan (pronounced Zan), Hopcraft never experienced any of the adventures the movie youngster faces in teaching his former pet how to survive in the wild and then finding it a new home.
The movie opens with the cub's mother being killed by lions. (Don't worry, parents, the scene takes place in heavy brush that hides the actual attack.) The cub wanders off and is discovered by Xan (12-year-old newcomer Alexander Michaletos). The boy takes the animal to his family's farm, where his parents (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) good- naturedly put up with his ever- growing menagerie.
When Duma starts nearing full size, Xan's father delivers gentle lectures about the animal's need "to go back to the world he comes from." But Xan isn't convinced until the family is forced to move to the city, and he grasps how traumatic it is to be thrown into an alien environment.
Xan and Duma take off on their own, intent on hiking hundreds of miles across the salt flats and through the jungle to the mountains. The bulk of the movie concerns this journey, which is fraught with dangers ranging from scorching heat to hungry crocodiles to swarms of insects.
Along the way, they are befriended by another drifter (British actor Eamonn Walker). But the main bonding still takes place between Xan and Duma. In a way, they are coming of age together: Duma discovers his instincts, and Xan learns about adult responsibilities.
Ballard's dime-store philosophizing gets schmaltzy, but the emotions seem heartfelt. And as he has done in earlier movies, he incorporates some spectacular backdrops -- which are real, by the way, not computer-generated. He often pulls back the camera until the protagonists are just tiny images fronting an immense and intimidating vista that is beautiful (to us) and scary (to them).
Michaletos, who was discovered at an open-casting call, originally impressed the filmmakers with the comfort he displayed around a cheetah. He's equally impressive in his scenes with humans, but none of the people can match the cheetah used for Duma's facial expressions, which are totally "awww"-inspiring.
***½ out of four stars
The setup: A 12-year-old boy sets off on a trip across South Africa after becoming determined to return his pet cheetah to the wild.
What works: First-time actor Alex Michaletos is a natural.
What doesn't: Simplistic sentimentality.
Great line: "Duma has to live the life he was born to."
Jeff Strickler 612-673-7392