Last year, director Carroll Ballard returned to theaters after a nearly 10-year absence with Duma (rated PG for mild adventure peril), a delightful family film about a South African boy and his pet cheetah. Yet despite near-universal acclaim by critics, the film never received a full-fledged theatrical release.
Instead, Warner Brothers attempted an odd marketing strategy of scheduling small-scale test runs of the film in cities like Phoenix and Sacramento. The hope, apparently, was that Duma would catch fire without a dime spent on advertising. But the film never made it beyond these minor play dates, and now, again with little fanfare, it arrives on DVD.
Hundreds of copies of the disc won't line Blockbuster's new-release shelves, but this fine, all-audience film is finally available to families across the country. Duma will not be remembered with the same fondness as Mr. Ballard's Black Beauty, yet it is head and shoulders above most other family offerings.
The very capable Alex Michaeletos plays Xan, a young South African boy who one day with his father (Campbell Scott) stumbles upon a young cheetah cub. The orphaned animal, named Duma, quickly becomes a part of Xan's family. But the cheetah eventually outgrows such domesticated confines. The return of Duma to the wild is precipitated by a much more devastating loss-the death of Xan's father.
It is up to Xan to return the cheetah, no longer a pet, to his desert home. Xan and Duma set off alone on a journey that brings them face to face with many dangers, including a shady fellow traveler (Eamonn Walker).
Mr. Ballard doesn't break any new ground here, but what he does, he does extremely well. His African landscapes are luxurious and mesmerizing, and his action scenes spirited. More importantly, Mr. Ballard knows how to work with both children and animals, so that the former are stretched by their circumstances without growing too old in the process, and the latter become genuine friends without excessive anthropomorphization.