Today’s “youth market” movies are shittier than the green, foamy diaper of a flu-stricken newborn. I would hate to be a moppet screen-watcher in the New Millennium. I mean, imagine being spoon-fed fecal-flavored baby food like “The Shaggy Dog,” “Daddy Day Care,” and any movie with poster art showing Tim Allen, Eddie Murphy, or Steve Martin in slack-jawed, bug-eyed idiot mode.
Films like “Yours, Mine, and Ours,” “Cheaper By the Dozen,” and “The Santa Clause” are horrific abominations posing as wholesome entertainment, as spontaneous and joyful as a sweatshop assembly line. They’re really no different than fast food put to celluloid. What happened to the days when kid-friendly “Sounder” (1972) could offer both a beautiful coming-of-age story and an empathic look at black sharecroppers?
Warner Bros released “Duma” in the spring of 2005. “Released” is a relative term – it was actually shown in only three cities before being yanked out of theaters. No matter that the brilliant Carroll Ballard directed this boy-befriends-cheetah adventure. A filmmaking genius with a knack for consistently spinning family films into priceless gold, Ballard helmed what is arguably the best trio of “safe-for-kids” movies ever made: “The Black Stallion,” “Never Cry Wolf,” and “Fly Away Home.”
Let’s reflect a bit on Ballard’s past work. Roger Ebert called “The Black Stallion” the best film of 1979, and it’s easy to gawk at its greatness. The movie would never be green-lighted by studios today. It’s too quiet. In fact, aside from some expository, start-up verbiage from a tragedy-bound ship, “The Black Stallion” is powered by images, not dialogue. When young Kelly Reno survives a Titanic-style ocean disaster and is washed onto an island, he finds a fellow survivor – the title’s majestic, wild horse – to take the place of his drowned dad.
Encountering a lethal snake, Reno is saved by The Black. He earns the animal’s trust, and learns to ride it. Gorgeously filmed sequences of these unlikely comrades running along the sandy surf carry staggering, awe-inspiring emotional weight. The sun. The sand. The stallion’s wispy, black mane. These artful images speak louder – much louder – than the base, busy laugh tracks and shrill arguing that define much of our contemporary culture’s popular family entertainment.
But Ballard’s contributions to the screen don’t end with “The Black Stallion.” He also directed 1983’s “Never Cry Wolf,” which examined an initially tentative man developing passion, courage, and commitment while studying wolves in the arctic. Again, the director values visual grandeur over cheap talk. In a best-of-career performance, Charles Martin Smith morphs into a Timothy Treadwell-styled Grizzly Man, joining caribou in a rousing migration before facing off with mercenary, exploitative pilot Brian Dennehy.
But the gentle power of “Never Cry Wolf,” which refuses to create villains of its complex, flawed human characters, is best captured in a quiet final scene. Smith’s hero befriends an elderly Eskimo, and teaches him how to juggle rocks. The two men sit amidst melting snow in the quickly emerging Arctic spring, communicating this skill with laughter and understanding. It’s a transcendent moment.
“Fly Away Home”(1996) observes Anna Paquin as a young, grief-stricken girl embarking on a shaky reunion with her estranged father. By adopting a flock of Canadian geese – then teaching them how to migrate via customized glider plane – she finds meaning and validation. Paquin might have won her Oscar for “The Piano,” but the actresses’ gem of a performance in “Fly Away Home” is equally vibrant. Check out her reaction when dad confesses to having a live-in girlfriend. Paquin’s utter rejection of this new love interest – hot on the heels of her own tragic maternal loss – is expressed with a volatile awkwardness that rings true. To hell with Lindsay Lohan. Paquin acts like a girl in this situation would most likely act. And I dare anyone not to leak a few tears during the film’s emotionally wrenching final scenes.
Which brings us full circle – and back to “Duma.” As the opening Warner Brothers logo gives way to sun-baked images of Africa, we’re serenaded by the tribal, percussive sounds of reed instruments and drums. Gold is the primary color in “Duma,” and Ballard’s masterful introductory scene casts viewers into a field of baboons, lions, and pelican-type birds that I’ve never seen before. Faster than you can say “dinner bell,” a steely, leonine predator has pounced onto a mother cheetah, forever separating her from nearby cubs (did you know that lions preyed on cheetahs? I didn’t).
Soon, the orphaned cubs are struggling to survive. As fate would have it, a white, South African farm boy named Xan (Alex Michaeletos) adopts one of the younglings. He’s a good master to the animal, naming it “Duma.” But when family problems threaten to destroy the bond between pet and boy, Xan risks his life to transport the beloved cat back to its wild birthplace – free from the clutches of animal-control honchos.
I’m not sure “Duma” rises to the heights of Ballard’s abovementioned classics. With beloved cheetah in tow, Xan rides a motorcycle into the Kalahari Desert. Soon, he’s out of gas, and “Duma” also loses steam during long, snail’s pace sequences of the duo endlessly hiking through sand. It’s clearly drudgery for these two heroes – and for the audience, as well.
Even so, the movie has resonance. Xan’s complex relationship with desert fugitive Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker) has real heft. Through their mutual struggles, both characters grow into different people by film’s end. In fact, this human transformation seems the common threat shared by all of Ballard’s work. On the surface, his films seemingly involve animals. But they really deal with how people adapt in times of crisis.
And there’s a real ache to Xan’s transformation from grieving child to self-sufficient preadolescent – a bittersweet truth that we felt with Paquin as she wrestled with a mother’s premature passing, or with Reno’s traumatic loss of a supportive father figure. Call me soft. Call me a p***y. But these themes have a pull that lingers and haunts for a lifetime. Name a film in the past few months that’s had that effect on you.
“Duma” hasn’t exactly been setting the box office on fire. Did I catch it at the local multiplex? Hell, no – I ventured into Seattle’s Capitol Hill to screen “Duma” at the Northwest Film Forum, a venue usually associated with obscure art-house fare. Ironically, the steaming wad of dog dung that is “The Shaggy Dog” played across town at multiple locations.
Carroll Ballard is that rare breed of filmmaker, a director who takes his time to savor the landscape of his movies. Will children feel this same admiration after watching “Duma”? I dunno. The immediacy and accuracy of computer graphics have worked against Ballard’s effects-free approach. A sequence involving Duma and Xan evading crocodiles while crossing a river is obviously done without digital intervention. It relies on creative editing, instead (“Jaws”-eye, underwater views of potential dinners are blended with restless crocs lunging into the river). I enjoyed the scene. But in the age of Peter Jackson, when we can peruse every tiny nuance of King Kong wrestling with three t-rexes, will kids appreciate Ballard’s less obvious visual rhythms?
Who knows? But one thing’s for sure. Unless “Duma” is given a second chance through revival showings and a favorable DVD release, its director is destined for the endangered species list. Like the stallions, wolves, geese, and cheetahs he immortalizes so memorably onscreen, Carroll Ballard deserves to be saved from extinction.
KJ Doughton resurrects reels and breathes life back into films currently on life support and verging on extinction. Applying his “rave resuscitation” to movies at risk of fading into obscurity due to old age, faltering promotional systems, premature delivery, societal stigma, or a runty box-office take, he advocates a second chance for flatlining films too important to die.