Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Two Brothers’: ‘Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, in the Forests of the Night’


PG | 1h 45min | Drama, Comedy | 2004

Writer-director-producer Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Two Brothers” (2004) is for children. But adults surrendering, childlike, to its charms will relish it almost as much as kids do.

In 1920s French-colonial Cambodia, amid jungle ruins, hunter-explorer Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce) hunts for sacred statues to sell on the black market. At one ancient temple site, he confronts and kills an adult male tiger, separating its cubs, Kumal and Sangha. Kumal winds up with McRory, and Sangha escapes with his mother.

Hunter-explorer Aiden McRory (Guy Pearce) saves a tiger cub, in "Two Brothers." (MovieStillsDB)
Hunter-explorer Aiden McRory (Guy Pearce) saves a tiger cub, in "Two Brothers." (MovieStillsDB)

Surprising himself, the no-nonsense McRory warms to Kumal and nurses him. But when McRory is arrested by authorities, Kumal passes through a few hands before ending up in a circus run by a heartless ringmaster.

McRory’s arrest is short-lived because French administrator Normandin (Jean-Claude Dreyfus)  is a fan of McRory’s jungle exploits. Out again in the jungle hunting for profit, McRory captures the lone cub that the tigress has been shielding, Sangha.

McRory generously allows Normandin’s little son, Raoul (Freddie Highmore), to rear Sangha, and after a while, the boy becomes attached to the young tiger. But when Sangha’s ferocity surfaces (with the pet dog of Raoul’s mom at the receiving end), he’s promptly dispatched to a petulant prince for his wildlife collection.

As the cubs grow, Kumal’s aggression dims under the cruelty of circus life. Sangha’s aggression heightens in the lifeless palace, his gentleness as a cub under Raoul’s care now a distant memory. The fates of the two tigers are tied to each other and to Raoul and McRory, who’ll decide whether (and how) they meet again, this time as adult brothers.

Masterclass in Capturing Animals on Film

Over a shooting schedule of five months, Annaud used a range of cubs because the ones on set outgrew their story “sizes” too swiftly. Likewise, several tigers played the adult Kumal and Sangha.

Lead animal trainer Thierry Le Portier and animal trainer Randy Miller made the footage of tigers interacting with humans believable and entertaining. In a behind-the-scenes video, Portier admitted that it was easy to make a tiger look angry. The trick was in getting the tiger to look angry eight feet from cameras with the lighting, precisely when cast and crew were ready, and to look angry in one direction only. To do this, Portier rotated his tigers to get the emotions and qualities that Annaud wanted: anger, fear, laze, mischief, nobility, grace, boredom.

Filmmakers working with tiger cubs on the set of "Two Brothers." (MovieStillsDB)
Filmmakers working with tiger cubs on the set of "Two Brothers." (MovieStillsDB)

To get the tigers to act according to a storyboard, the filmmakers innovated just as they would with human actors. So-called stunt tigers do what “star” tigers can’t (or won’t!), and tiger “body doubles” save the crew from tiring or irritating the “stars.”

They also filmed whole days unscripted, with endless scenes of tigers being tigers, just doing their thing: walking, sitting, climbing, running, leaping, staring, yawning, growling, roaring. Annaud, cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou, and editor Noëlle Boisson then cut, trimmed, and pasted footage into the narrative to create meaning and context.

To honor the natural look and feel of tigers in their habitat, Annaud had his crew caged (for their safety) as the tigers moved around unrestrained. For more intimate shots, to keep the crew safe and the tigers calm, Annaud used remote-controlled cameras, and animatronics where close-up positions were clearly dangerous for actors.

Annaud’s scene sense, Dreujou’s intuitive framing, and Boisson’s incredibly timed edits never wavered from the tigers. Stephen Warbeck’s majestic soundtrack rendered dialogue almost redundant. You come away from the film with images of those orange-black flames flickering in high grass before your eyes, the sound of their roars ringing in your ears.

Innocence of Animals

In the Eastern tradition, including in Cambodia and Thailand where the film was shot, tigers embody courage and resilience amid struggle. Annaud brought that tone to his story, but his brilliance lies in his grasp of why children are drawn to animals, and he reflected that in Highmore’s bond with his cub.

In animals, kids find a bit of themselves. They love the innocence of animals and their eagerness to “get right to it,” whether it’s food, drink, or play.

While in the care of the French administrator's son, Sangha plays amid the boy's stuffed animals. (MovieStillsDB)
While in the care of the French administrator's son, Sangha plays amid the boy's stuffed animals. (MovieStillsDB)

In interviews, Annaud says of the tigers he worked with: “When they’re small you can’t help it, you want to cuddle them; when they’re big, you want to respect them.” Naturally, his film instills in audiences a respect for tigers in particular and for nature more broadly.

Worldwide, the tiger is critically endangered because its population plummeted from 100,000 in the early 20th century to just over 3,000 in the early 21st. That roar, once deafening, is now no more than a whimper.

Then, in 2010, the Global Tiger Recovery Plan started the effort to stem the decline and spike numbers by the next “Year of the Tiger”—2022. It’s working. For the first time in decades, numbers are growing and are now at about 5,000 worldwide.

Victory? Not quite. Progress? Surely.

Is “Two Brothers” responsible for the reversal? Probably not. But it certainly helped to stir hearts into rethinking the role that humans can play in the tiger story. The Global Tiger Forum, an intergovernmental tiger-conservation body, actively used screenings of the film in its campaign.

Who knows, but with a bit more help, the tiger may soon roar again.

‘Two Brothers’ Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud Starring: Freddie Highmore, Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes Release Date: June 25, 2004 Rated: 5 stars out of 5
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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