Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Duma:’ Director Carroll Ballard’s Primo Shaggy Cheetah Story

BY Michael Clark TIMEFebruary 27, 2022 PRINT
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Alexander Michaletos as Xan and the cheetah in “Duma.” (Warner Bros.)

During his 40-year filmmaking career, retired director Carroll Ballard choose the great outdoors as the settings for all but one (“Nutcracker: The Movie”) of his eight movies, including two Vietnam War-era documentaries (“Beyond This Winter’s Wheat” and “Harvest”) commissioned and produced by the U.S. Information Agency.

“Duma” was Ballard’s final feature effort and, with the possible exception of “Never Cry Wolf” (1983), it was the finest of his career. Based on the children’s book “How it Was with Dooms” by Carol Cawthra Hopcraft and her son Xan, it was adapted for the screen by Carol Flint, Mark St. Germain, and Karen Janszen. In most instances, when a screenplay is penned by more than one writer—the Coen brothers, notwithstanding—the resulting final product is all over the place, but that is certainly not the case here.

It Begs for Multiple Viewings

Saddled by a pathetically inept and misrepresentative marketing campaign upon release, “Duma” brought in just under $1 million at the global box office against a $12 million budget and, since then, has become a treasured cult favorite. Chances are if you see it once, you’re likely to watch it again and again. Over the last 16 years, I’ve viewed it over 20 times and I always discover something I had previously missed.

Shot in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa (where it is also set), the story opens with a breathtaking “chase scene” at a game preserve involving two lions and a cheetah which results in the latter’s (thankfully off-screen) death. One of the mother’s cubs finds its way off the sanctuary and wanders on to a nearby paved road where it is nearly hit by a car driven by Peter (Campbell Scott). Traveling with his son Xan (Alexander Michaletos, also providing narration), Peter makes sure the cub isn’t injured and, at Xan’s fervent insistence, they bring him home to their farm. Xan’s initially leery and hesitant mother Kristin (Hope Davis) eventually falls in love with the rescued animal and it becomes the new family pet.

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(L–R) Hope Davis, Campbell Scott, and Alexander Michaletos and Duma the cheetah in “Duma.” (Warner Bros.)

Christening him Duma (Swahili for cheetah), the recent arrival takes to domestication like a duck to water. The filmmakers employ superb narrative shorthand by having him age to full size within the first 20 minutes (the titular character is portrayed by five different animals). Unfortunately [unavoidable spoiler ahead], one of Xan’s parents also passes away during this stretch leaving the surviving spouse and Xan with few viable options.

Not wanting to disrupt Xan’s life further, the spouse allows him to bring Duma with them when they relocate to Johannesburg. None of the recent transplants are thrilled with their new living conditions, although having a cheetah at his side does save newcomer Xan from being beat up by school bullies.

Not a Great Fit for City Life

Beating his parent to the punch, Xan realizes the days of life in the big city for Duma are in short supply and Xan runs away with him. Pinching the old family motorcycle (with a sidecar for Duma), Xan heads for a remote, animal-friendly area which includes traveling through a desert and ultimately crossing paths with Rip (Eamonn Walker), a mysterious vagabond/gypsy/drifter who is extremely difficult to read.

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Eamonn Walker stars as Rip in “Duma.” (Warner Bros.)

We’re now at the halfway point and going into any of the details of how the remainder plays out would be patently disrespectful and unfair to those interested in seeing it and being wowed for the first time (available streaming platforms can be found at justwatch.com). While there, you might also want to check out a few of Ballard’s other splendid efforts including “Black Stallion” (1979), “Fly Away Home” (1996), and the aforementioned “Never Cry Wolf.”

What can be revealed: the ever-morphing, fluid dynamic between Rip and Xan (and by extension, Duma) takes on the air of a slightly more daring and dangerous Mark Twain adaptation. Issues of blind trust are raised, situations of peril are addressed, and unforgiving elements of nature and terrain weigh in but none of it is too intense for mature preteen viewing; the “PG” rating is entirely appropriate.

Superior Photography

Visually akin to “Out of Africa,” “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “The Constant Gardener,” and “The Good Lie,” Werner Maritz’s panoramic cinematography is beyond stunning. This is a movie which begs to viewed on the largest hi-def TV you can find. Watching it on a computer or a smart phone would be the cinematic equivalent of listening to the Ensemble Appassionato/Mathieu Herzog’s recording of Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony No. 41” on a transistor AM radio.

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Alexander Michaletos as Xan and the cheetah in “Duma.” (Warner Bros.)

It would be remiss to not acknowledge the great impact of the score by John Debney and George Acogny alongside the inclusion of continent-centric, traditional Zulu folk music and the goose-flesh-inducing closing credits song “When You’re Falling,” performed by The Afro Celt Sound System with vocals performed by Peter Gabriel.

Ballard is a rare movie industry bird. He picked his projects well and never confused authentic sentiment with manufactured faux-sentimentality. In a manner not unlike that of Stanley Kubrick, he took his time in between projects. On average, he delivered one picture every five years and all eight of them—save for the misfire that was “Wind” (1992)—are hands-down winners. Few filmmakers can get remotely close to matching that kind of slugging percentage. He said what he had to say, never wore out his welcome, and exited on a high note. More than a few of his lesser-talented contemporary peers should follow his lead.

‘Duma’
Director: Carroll Ballard
Stars: Alexander Michaletos, Hope Davis, Eamonn Walker, Campbell Scott
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Release Date: April 22, 2005
Rating: 5 out of 5

 

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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