A French production, partially and atrociously dubbed into English, set in an unspecified time and place in French Indochina, and featuring real tigers interacting with each other in an often spatially confusing manner, Jean-Jacques Annaud's Two Brothers was intended for children, but it feels like Free Willy, as seen on a late-night broadcast by a viewer on hallucinogens. Annaud's 1988 sleeper hit The Bear showed a remarkable facility with animals, but in the time since, his facility with humans has evaporated to such a degree that they seem like the exotic creatures on display. At best, the film offers kids a dream trip to the zoo, when all the cats are active, playful, and adorable, instead of curled up in lazy, defeated slumber in the afternoon sun. But between those enchanting interludes of quiet observation, even the smallest bladders may demand more bathroom breaks than anatomically necessary.
Given the nature of his PG-rated junior safari, Annaud does provide a surprisingly ambiguous hero in Guy Pearce, a mercenary hunter who first appears like an evil Indiana Jones, plundering ancient sites for sacred statues. While touring Indochina, Pearce is recruited to round up a family of tigers for a local monarch to shoot for sport. Two infant cubs lose their parents as a result, and they're separated and forced into cruel captivity. Koumal is sold to a low-rent circus, where trainers beat him into performing. Meanwhile, his brother Sangha becomes a pet for the wide-eyed son of gluttonous French diplomat Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and he's domesticated into a docile playmate. When the cubs finally meet again as full-grown tigers, they're pitted against each other in a Roman-style, battle-to-the-death cage match.
The tiger footage in Two Brothers would make for a solid nature documentary, but because the animals are shoehorned into a narrative, they've been anthropomorphized to death. At times, they're more thoughtful and sophisticated than their human counterparts, and they're definitely nobler, more sensitive, and better-humoredthey remember incidents from infancy with striking clarity, and might be capable of reading the Sunday paper, if given half the chance. Koumal and Sangha deserve an equally high-powered supporting cast, but instead, they're stuck with Pearce, who broods and mumbles incoherently, and the officious Dreyfus, who's a dead ringer for the vomiting oaf in Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life. Unlike The Bear, which stayed almost entirely immersed in the animal world, Two Brothers leaves its comfort zone the moment it enters civilization.