Duma is one of Hollywood's better attempts at live-action family-friendly fare. The film, helmed by Carroll Ballard (Fly Away Home, The Black Stallion), does not resort to the gross-out antics of so many of its contemporaries. Rather, Duma relies on an emotional coming-of-age story set against a beautiful African backdrop to engage the audience and to deliver a powerful and satisfying film.

The movie opens with what could easily be footage from a National Geographic documentary. Barren land. Sun-choked vegetation. Panting animals. But, the image grows unsettling as a once-complacent lion sets his sights on a coalition of cheetah cubs. In an instant, the footage becomes brutal in the harsh reality of the animal kingdom, as the mother cheetah sacrifices herself for the safety of her babies. Yet, the opening scenes suggest that humans could learn a lesson or two from animals. Life walks a delicate balance between beautiful and brutal, and continues its march to time's beat regardless.

Finding Duma as a cub, Xan and his father decide to 'adopt'

Finding Duma as a cub, Xan and his father decide to 'adopt'

The plot is simple: Duma is the story of a boy and his adopted cheetah, whom he names Duma (Swahili for "cheetah"). But, simple does not mean simplistic. In this case, simple means understated, reflective, and timeless.

The film, adapted from an autobiography by Xan Hopcraft, follows the journeys of an extraordinary character—12-year-old Xan (played superbly by newcomer Alexander Michaletos), who is carefree and amiable. Yet, when his father (Campbell Scott) becomes terminally ill, Xan trades in his innocuous free spirit for a burdened stoic soul. He holds his cards close to his vest, so much so that even his mother (American Splendor's Hope Davis), a compassionate presence in the film, cannot break through Xan's hardened exterior to help him cope.

What was an ideal childhood (growing up on a farm, saving and raising an abandoned cheetah, and living with two loving parents) quickly becomes Xan's living nightmare, as he and his mother are forced to lease the farm and move to Johannesburg to live with relatives. During this transitional time, both Xan and Duma look as though they live in captivity. Neither have room to run and play, and life has pushed both into circumstances well out of their respective comfort zones.

Xan (Alexander Michaletos) and his cheetah friend, Duma

Xan (Alexander Michaletos) and his cheetah friend, Duma

So, Xan decides to do something about it. What follows is one of the most profound psychological and physical journeys ever written into a movie geared toward children. That adventure centers around Xan's desire to return Duma to his home in the wilderness—a place far removed from Johannesburg, requiring the boy-cheetah team to face several different and terrifying challenges (deserts, crocodiles, wart hogs, trappers, and an interesting stranger).

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On the first leg of the journey, Xan's motorcycle runs out of gas in the middle of the Salt Pans, a bleak and lifeless area in which the film seems to stop. The only movement is the heat vapors rising from the ground. The only sound is Duma's panting. Xan finds refuge in a crashed plane—and waits, knowing he has no water and, possibly, no hope. But he does not panic. Rather, the silence offers a time for reflection, an open invitation to rest and think and wait. It's a welcome departure from modern films otherwise filled with non-stop action and explosions.

Duma and Xan share many experiences on their journey

Duma and Xan share many experiences on their journey

Farther along in his journey, Xan meets Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker), a schemer and dreamer who deserted his family and tribe for fortune in the city. Rip and Xan, two people who have lost trust in humanity, make for an interesting team. Back-stabbing at first, the two must put aside their differences and prejudices in order to survive the brutal wilderness. Rip, in essence, serves as another marker in Xan's ultimate test.

Duma is chock full of themes: the joys of childhood, the pains of growth, the importance of friends and family, reconciliation in relationships, the wildness of animals and humans—you name it, this film's got it. But screenwriters Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain did not include the various themes carelessly. They weaved a story in which a life's quest makes or breaks a person. Their script gives credence to the intelligence of its target market. Children deserve movies that make them think and that are not "dumbed down" to get cheap laughs. Kids are savvy consumers; they will know when a film is well-made and thoughtful.

While the movie may not be suitable for very young children (and may not hold their attention), it's certainly intellectually and emotionally relevant to all other ages—including parents, who will be thankful that they can witness a handcrafted masterpiece instead of another cookie-cutter, predictable flick.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Consider the biblical mandate to honor your parents (Ex. 20:12; Matt. 19). Do you think that Xan honored his parents by taking the journey? Why or why not?

  2. When Xan's father becomes ill, how does Xan's character change? Are the changes constructive or destructive? Why?

  3. Duma is a wild animal, yet he lives with Xan and the family for several months. Do you think wild animals can ever be truly tame? Why or why not?

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  1. What do you think were the most important lessons Xan learned on his journey?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Duma is rated PG for "mild adventure peril," similar to the content found on TV's Animal Planet or The Discovery Channel. In one scene, a parrot says, "sexy mama," but Xan's father scolds him for teaching the bird such inappropriate phrases. In another scene, Ripkuna suffers from swelling due to insect bites, and the swelling might be disturbing.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet and Peter T. Chattaway

from Film Forum, 06/08/06

After a particularly taxing day last week, my wife Anne and I relaxed with a DVD of a movie we had missed during its theatrical run—Duma. What caught our attention was the name of the director. Carroll Ballard directed the masterful adaptation of The Black Stallion (1979), Never Cry Wolf (1983), and Fly Away Home (1996). Could this mean that Ballard had surprised us with yet another wonderful film about the grace and beauty of the animal kingdom?

The answer is, unequivocally, yes.

Duma takes you from a family home in South Africa to an ambitious journey through the wilderness in the company of a beautiful cheetah. Young Xan (Alex Michaeletos) is reluctant to let go of the wild cat he has raised since he found him orphaned and alone, in spite of the wise counsel of his parents (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis). And when Xan suffers a painful loss of his own, the experience forms a powerful bond between him and his furry friend.

But we all know that a cheetah isn't going to do well as a domestic pet. What will it take for Xan to heal from his wounds and make the right decision? A memorable adventure, apparently. Xan and Duma must survive a challenging trek across the desert in the company of a suspicious traveler (Eamonn Walker) who has an animal friend of his own—a mischievous kangaroo rat.

We were delighted by this film, largely for the beauty of its wild African backdrop, the majesty of that graceful cheetah, and the cast's understated performances. It may not be the most original story of its kind, but it boasts the kind of aesthetic pleasures that are hard to find in moviegoing today. Moreover, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better family film released in the last year.

Other Christian film critics are also discovering this delightful film. Mary Lasse reviewed the film for Christianity Today Movies almost a year ago, during its limited theater run: "Duma is one of Hollywood's better attempts at live-action family-friendly fare. … [It] is chock full of themes: the joys of childhood, the pains of growth, the importance of friends and family, reconciliation in relationships, the wildness of animals and humans—you name it, this film's got it."

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Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "[Ballard's] 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."

And Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Ballard shows great sensitivity and doesn't back away from tough issues, like the complex themes of home, loss and death.He coaxes excellent performances from [his] actors, and doesn't fall into the trap of anthropomorphizing the cheetah, as so many directors would.Any emotions he shows are real, and stem from the characters—not some projected sentiment we think the animal might be feeling."

And she concludes, "Overall, an outstanding film that not only deserves a place in every family library, but is also destined to become a classic."

from Film Forum, 08/11/05

Fans of Carroll Ballard's animal-themed family films (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home) may want to see his newest film, Duma, about a cheetah that is raised by humans, and then is taken on a dangerous journey back into the wild after its human family has moved to Johannesburg. The film reunites Campbell Scott and Hope Davis (The Impostors, The Secret Lives of Dentists) as the parents of the boy who takes the cheetah home.

Jeremy Landes (Christian Spotlight) says the film "succeeds spectacularly in showing us Africa as most Westerners will never experience it … Duma is a great film that shows off the beautiful creation of an untame God."

Mainstream critics are, so far, unanimous in their praise.

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for mild adventure peril)
Directed By
Carroll Ballard
Run Time
1 hour 40 minutes
Alex Michaeletos, Campbell Scott, Hope Davis
Theatre Release
May 27, 2005 by Warner Brothers
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