The setups to many of Carroll Ballard's features are pretty elemental: A boy and his horse (The Black Stallion), a girl and her geese (Fly Away Home), and, in Duma, a boy and his cheetah. There's always some tension between the natural and the human world, and some difficulty in ensuring that the animal returns to its habitat with instincts restored. The child also undergoes some rehabilitation during this process, almost always involving the sudden death of a parent. In broad strokes, it's all pretty cut and dried: As a producer tells struggling screenwriter John Turturro in Barton Fink: "Wallace Beery. Wrestling. What do you need, a road map?" No doubt Ballard is the Yasujiro Ozu of kid-meets-orphaned-animal movies, working minor variations on the same themes, but those variations make a big difference, and Duma finds him a little off his game.
Most of the troubles come at the beginning, when Ballard and his screenwriters hastily attempt to establish a kinship between a South African boy (Alexander Michaletos) and his father (Campbell Scott). When the two find a baby cheetah stranded on the side of the road, they adopt it as a pet, intending to release it back into the wild once it's capable of surviving on its own. But after Scott suddenly dies and the family farm goes to seed, Michaletos and his mother (Hope Davis) are forced to live with relatives in the big city, which isn't particularly hospitable for a growing cheetah. Feeling isolated and frightened for the animal's health, Michaletos runs off on his father's old motorcycle with the cheetah in the sidecar, heading across distant plains toward its natural habitat. After he breaks down along the way, Michaletos strikes up a tenuous friendship with Eamonn Walker, a local tribesman who's searching for lost treasure in abandoned diamond mines.
Ballard clearly knows his way around this territory, and his intelligence and impeccable eye for beauty sets Duma apart from the spastic or perfunctory entertainments that mostly pass for family fare. But it's hard to forget that Ballard made this same movie to more moving and poetic effect with Fly Away Home, which also features a bereft child who turns into a surrogate parent during the mourning process. The way Ballard handles the parents' deaths alone underlines the differences between the two movies: In Fly Away Home, a girl loses her mother as the opening credits roll, but the slow tumble of their rolling car is far more moving than the wheezing business of establishing a father-son relationship in order to cut it short. Still, the cheetah is the star in Duma, and no one directs animals more convincingly than Ballard, who knows better than anyone how to integrate patchwork nature shots into narrative action. Too bad the two-legged talking animals aren't as compelling this time out.