Jean-Jacques Annaud is well known as the director of the 1988 family classic The Bear, and in his new film, Two Brothers, Guy Pearce is the best-known actor and in one sense has the biggest part. Yet the lone over-the-title credit is "Introducing Kumal and Sangha." Clearly, this is Kumal and Sangha’s film. And yet Kumal and Sangha, the title brothers, don’t strictly exist. They’re tigers, and, while Annaud uses real beasts as brilliantly as he did in The Bear, his tigrine protagonists are each played in cubhood and adulthood by any number of real cats, male and female.
It doesn’t matter. On the screen, timid Kumal and aggressive Sangha are as real as the human characters in many another film, and more so than some. From the delightful early scenes of the two young cubs wrestling and playing, pestering their tolerant parents, and so on, to the trials and triumphs of the adult cats, Kumal and Sangha will make you believe in their story — in part because the tigers playing them are perfectly in character.
Annaud’s skill and subtlety elevate what is essentially a simple, fable-like throwback to the sort of live-action feature Disney used to make in the 1950s. (The story itself is set in the 1930s.)
In an early scene we find writer-explorer-hunter Aidan McRory (Pearce) treasure-hunting for ancient statuary in an unnamed East Asian jungle, where he runs across a tiger and shoots it. The film is critical of McRory’s colonialist treasure hunting, and definitely doesn’t like to see tigers get shot. Even so, the point about unscupulous profiteering is made elliptically rather than heavy-handedly, and the shooting of the tiger, at least at the moment it occurs, is obviously warranted.
Annaud and co-writer Alain Godard also incorporate a number of contrived but nifty twists into the story, such as a stressful time in the life of timid Kumal that later pays off during a crisis that his particular experiences have made him better able to deal with than his dominant sibling Sangha.
Annaud’s real glory, though, is in eliciting and/or capturing the moments he wants from his photogenic performers, aided by cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou (Man on the Train). Some moments seem breathtakingly candid, as when an aged adult tiger in a circus cage, who’s been avoiding the noisy youngster in the adjacent cage, slides his tail through the bars of both cages and lets the lonely cub play with its twitching end. Other moments are obviously artifice but none the less stunning for that, as when the cubs’ mother desperately chases down a moving pickup carrying one of her cubs in a crate and does her best to spring him.
Annaud doesn’t confer human speech or thoughts upon his tigers, but he does anthropomorphize and sentimentalize them in subtler ways. Kumal and Sangha each bond as cubs with an affectionate human, Kumal (in a charmingly tender scene) with McRory, and Sangha with a boy named Raoul (Freddie Highmore), the son of a local administrator. I don’t know how long tiger memories are in real life, but I know I wouldn’t want to see it put to the test the way it happens here.
But Two Brothers is a fable, almost a fairy tale, set long ago in a land far away, and populated with characters who are mostly one-dimensional stereotypes, except for McRory and Raoul (and, with only an additional exception or two, mostly unsympathetic or ridiculous stereotypes). The point isn’t what tigers are really like; the point is simply that these magnificent, splendid creatures deserve our respect.
Kumal and Sangha face much adversity in their lives, including capture, harsh training for entertainment purposes, and attempts to hunt them down. Raised in captivity, the brothers may never be able to go back to the wild, since they’ve never learned to hunt and (not being afraid of humans and humans being easy prey) will eventually take to harassing and ultimately killing people. (This information should have been deployed earlier in the film, as it would have set up a wacky post-escape slapstick sequence and made it less arbitrary.)
Sensitive children may find the bleakness and tension of some of the brothers’ misfortunes a bit much, though these are hardly the dominant notes in the film and there’s more than enough tenderness, comedy, and triumph to balance things out. The final image is a perfect storybook ending, and a satisfying resolution to what is so far the year’s best family film.
Lassie is a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world, that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals.
If Snow Dogs is a fairly typical example of the conventional Hollywood idea of a live-action family film, Eight Below is a typical example of a new trend in family films that includes National Treasure, Hidalgo, Two Brothers, Fantastic Four and The Legend of Zorro. This is a good thing, but not yet good enough.
Faithfully adapted from the popular Newbery Honor novel by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is a good family film frequently verging on being an excellent one, and is quite a bit better than the dog-movie clichés suggested by the trailers.
"It’s not just a dog story," writes Annie Dingus in Texas Monthly, "it’s a rite of passage for American children." She is right. "Who saw Old Yeller?" Bill Murray asks a bunch of American soldiers in Stripes, trying to define our national spirit. "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure. I cried my eyes out!" And on NBC’s "Friends," ditsy Phoebe had a sudden unpleasant revelation as she realized that all her life her parents had always turned off the film before the climax, sparing her the film’s heartbreak — but also its life-affirming wisdom.
The obstacle to this duty, of course, is that Joe’s father Sam (Donald Crisp) is eventually forced out of financial necessity to sell Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). However, Lassie twice escapes from the the duke’s disagreeable handler Hynes (J. Patrick O’Malley) in order to keep her appointment with Joe, and eventually the duke takes Lassie to an estate in Scotland, over a thousand miles from her home.
Benji Off the Leash is undoubtedly the first dog movie ever made that thinks that a happy ending for a boy and his dog is not for the boy to get to keep the dog, but for the dog to go off to Hollywood to make a motion picture.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.