The film's title refers to the name given an orphaned cheetah cub after it is rescued and adopted by a South African boy named Xan (Alexander Michaletos) and his father (Campbell Scott). Years later, after Xan's father tragically passes away, his mother (Hope Davis) makes the difficult decision to move them to the city, where Duma obviously doesn't belong. Rather than risk losing his pet to the authorities, Xan decides to run away with Duma and make the long trek to cheetah territory, where he will at long last release Duma into the wild. But their journey, like all such journeys, is fraught with peril and danger, at one point bringing them face-to-face with a mysterious fellow traveler (Eamonn Walker) who may be either friend or foe.
Since his stunning debut with "The Black Stallion," Ballard has worked infrequently, making only four more films over the course of two decades. But his capacity to grasp and convey the rare communion of man with nature -- further manifested in such films as "Fly Away Home" and "Never Cry Wolf" -- remains unmatched. The ubiquitous majesty of the African wilds, the spirit of its people and the nobility of its wildlife -- from the extraordinary cheetahs to a scene-stealing bush baby -- are the essential building blocks for yet another of Ballard's poetic exploits. It's a timely reminder as to what constitutes real filmmaking: With real actors, real animals and real locations, Ballard stirs the kind of real emotional honesty that routinely eludes effects-laden mega-productions.
Unfortunately, that message has been only half-heartedly understood by studio execs who seem reluctant to give "Duma" its full theatrical exposure, leaving it to critics, audiences and exhibitors to exert the necessary pressure that will hopefully bring them to their senses. Starring Alexander Michaletos, Campbell Scott, Hope Davis and Eamonn Walker. Directed by Carroll Ballard. Written by Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain. Produced by John Wells, Hunt Lowry, E.K. Gaylord II, Kristin Harms and Stacy Cohen. A Warner Bros. release. Family/Drama. Rated PG for mild adventure peril. Running time: 100 min