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Duma (U)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: None listed as yet

GIVEN the crass nature of a lot of children's films of late, it's refreshing to find one that takes a more thoughtful approach to entertaining them.

Duma is a tender, if somewhat sentimental, tale of a boy who travels across South Africa to take his pet cheetah back to his rightful home in the wild.

It's intelligent, well-acted and genuinely exciting in places, even if it exists in territory that has been travelled many times before (in films such as Born Free and Two Brothers).

The film begins in the wild, as a young cheetah's parents are killed by a lion, forcing him to fend for himself.

The cheetah is eventually picked up by a youngster named Xan (Alex Michaletos) and his father (Campbell Scott), who take him back to their farm and promptly christen him Duma (Swahili for cheetah).

Over the ensuing years, Duma grows up and learns how to fit in with his new surroundings, all the while developing a strong bond with Xan.

Yet tragedy strikes when Xan's father falls ill and dies, forcing the distraught boy and his mother (Hope Davis) to move to the city in search of a new life.

Taking Duma with them, it quickly becomes apparent that the cheetah will not be able to fit in and, when Duma runs riot in a school while trying to locate Xan, the pair embark on a dangerous trek across the desert to return Duma to his rightful terrain.

Along the way, they befriend a mysterious traveller, Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker), who may have his own agenda for helping Duma, while being forced to run the gauntlet of the rugged landscape that surrounds them.

While it takes a little while to find its stride (and strikes a false note during its city-based sequence), the film does eventually provide a rewarding and frequently enriching experience that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Much of the credit for this must go to director, Carroll Ballard, who displays a keen eye for depicting nature and man's relationship with it (much as he did in Fly Away Home and The Black Stallion).

His footage of Duma is particularly memorable and occasionally exhilarating, while the various predicaments he places his cast in capably demonstrate the hidden dangers that are concealed within the wild.

A couple of sequences, especially, succeed in conveying the peril that surrounds them, including an encounter with crocodiles and Duma's second meeting with some hungry lions.

Yet Ballard doesn't hold back from showing some of the harsher aspects of life in the wild and includes some scenes that might scare really young viewers.

That said, his film also works on a human level and includes some nice chemistry between the central trio of Xan, Duma and Ripkuna.

It means that come the emotional finale, audiences won't mind feeling a little manipulated and may even shed a tear or two.

This is, at the end of the day, an involving family adventure that shows there is more to the world than computer-game violence and crass playground antics.

It may even inspire children to want to explore the natural world surrounding them, which can only be a good thing.

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